Belt-tightening

Can coaxing employees to live healthy lives help keep the bottom line in shape?

Corporate wellness programs are hardly new. As far back as the 1920s, Japanese workers started their day with a round of calisthenics. But with the cost of health-care plans soaring, and increased recognition of the relationship between lifestyle choices and costly chronic conditions, the plans have gained credence as a tool for reducing health-care expenses.

Modern programs go well beyond calisthenics. Companies may hire personal coaches and offer on-site nurses or Internet checkup tools to encourage employees to eat right, exercise, and quit smoking. Employees may be rewarded for meeting certain health goals or just for participating.

For corporations, the goal is to reduce the hospitalizations, doctor visits, and pricey prescriptions associated with poor heath habits. The programs target diabetes, heart disease, and other ailments related to obesity, poor diet, and inactivity. A healthier workforce can mean not only lower direct health-care costs but also reduced absenteeism and higher productivity.

Theoretically, the impact can be huge. Some companies claim to have earned returns of as much as 300 percent on investments in encouraging healthy living in the workplace. Little wonder that wellness plans have become so popular. “Every major corporation is now working on adopting some form of health improvement,” insists Helen Darling, president of the National Business Group on Health, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit group that represents employers on health-care issues. “PepsiCo just rolled out a huge health-improvement plan, and IBM and Sears are developing them.”

But they are proceeding with caution. Despite the appealing prospect of shrinking waistlines along with health costs, there are two problems with wellness programs. First, returns can be difficult to measure. Second, the programs raise some ethical questions: how involved should employers be in the nonwork habits of employees? When does gentle prodding cross the line into intrusion into their personal lives?

Healthy Hospitals

Despite these issues, Fairview Health Services, a health-care system based in Minneapolis, decided to work on improving the health of not only its patients but also its 13,000 benefit-eligible employees. In 1996, it offered employees at one of its sites a frozen-yogurt cone to complete a health-risk assessment (HRA). This test identified high-risk factors like obesity and unhealthy habits like smoking or a sedentary lifestyle. From there, the company helped employees target the risk areas identified in the HRA. The employees responded so well that the company decided to roll out the program companywide.

Today, Fairview has a comprehensive health-management program. Each year, staff members complete a new HRA and mark progress against prior evaluations. StayWell Health Management, the vendor hired to administer the HRAs, provides health coaches who discuss ways to improve overall health and develops programs in areas including depression, nutrition, and exercise. Employees also learn how to reduce stress and manage health conditions like arthritis and diabetes.

Currently, 80 percent of Fairview’s employees participate in the program, thanks in part to the incentives offered. Instead of a yogurt cone, employees who enter the program now receive a $25 gift certificate for the company store. They also receive a $50 credit at the store for completing any health behavior-change program and $100 for completing a disease-management program.

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