Wellness Programs Thrive at 2 Medium-Size Illinois Companies

March 16, 2010

Workplace wellness programs aren’t just for large corporations.

Mechanical Devices Co. in Bloomington and the Town of Normal are among central Illinois medium-size businesses that have developed wellness programs suited to their employees and are reaping the dividends of healthier, happier workers.

Mechanical Devices, 2005 G.E. Road, Bloomington, does production precision machine work for original equipment manufacturers, such as Caterpillar Inc. The company has 250 employees.

Linda Fillingham, co-owner and office manager, figured screenings would be a good way to get health information to employees and to motivate some to make improvements.

Five years ago, she approached OSF St. Joseph Medical Center’s Center for Healthy Lifestyles about offering health screenings for employees. Screenings were in the employee lunch room and paid for by the company.

“It was voluntary but I had to twist some arms,” she said with a smile. “We had close to 80 percent participation.”

“It’s totally private. I don’t see individual numbers, just overall numbers.”

But she knows some people had results worse than they expected. “It forces people to think about their body. And without a healthy body, you don’t perform as well on the job and don’t perform as well anywhere in life.”

Among employees getting screened was Richard Hetherington of Bloomington, who repairs machines and does electrical work.

“I hadn’t been to a doctor in a long time because I felt fine,” he said. But his screening results showed he had high blood pressure and cholesterol and was on the verge of being diabetic.

He went on blood pressure medicine, started eating less, reduced bread and salt, and replaced fries with baked potatoes. Within weeks, he had lost 30 pounds and was able to manage his blood pressure without medicine, reduce his cholesterol and keep his pre-diabetes under control.

Hetherington, now 65, has kept his weight and numbers under control by continuing to watch what he eats, by weight lifting at home each day after work and riding his bike during the summer.

“I just feel better,” he said.

In addition to the yearly screenings, Mechanical Devices offered smoking cessation classes in advance of the company going smoke-free throughout its property two years ago.

“I got 10 to 15 (employees) to stop smoking and everyone else (other smokers) reduced smoking,” Fillingham said.

Jackie Felts, a quality control employee, joined the eight-week program in January 2007. The program included weekly meetings, counseling, tips and a nicotine patch to assist with quitting smoking. Felts quit smoking Feb. 13, 2007.

“I feel 100 percent better,” said Felts, 46, of Bloomington. “I have more energy, I can breathe better, I can do more stuff, I don’t get out of breath. But without the program being offered here, I probably wouldn’t have done it.”

While the program costs Mechanical Devices money, Fillingham said it eventually will save the company and employees money when there are fewer employees having heart attacks and other costly medical problems.

“Employees who feel good about themselves do well for you,” she said. “They are your most valuable asset.”

Several years ago, Town of Normal offered occasional health and wellness programs for its employees, but “it was a hands-off approach,” observed Geoff Fruin, assistant to the city manager. “We presented opportunities to employees but they weren’t changing the workplace culture and keeping the wellness perspective in front of employees.

“The employees were wanting more,” he recalled. “And from the town perspective, we want to employ a happy, healthy, productive work force.”

Town officials went to BroMenn Healthcare (now Advocate BroMenn) and they agreed to a pilot program whereby Marcy Kaufman of BroMenn would be the town’s on-site wellness specialist 20 hours a week. The program began September 2006.

Kaufman offers health screenings at several town locations, including City Hall, the fire stations, parks and recreation and public works. She also offers exercise classes, fitness equipment orientations, lunch-and-learn presentations on such topics as back safety and improving nutrition, and e-mails and newsletters with health tips.

Kaufman also heads up fitness incentive programs, including last summer’s Get Fit on 66, in which employees participating in wellness activities earned rewards, such as gift cards, water bottles, pedometers and T-shirts.

Of 370 full-time town employees, 213 participated in at least one wellness program last year, Fruin said.

The participation rate continues to increase and an annual survey of employees includes testimonials of employees who have lost weight, controlled blood pressure and reduced cholesterol through exercise and healthier eating prompted by the town wellness program.

“That is rewarding,” Fruin said. “We are seeing the beginnings of a culture change here.”

The town already may be experiencing a financial benefit.

In 2006, the percentage increase in average health insurance claims for the town was 14.2 percent, compared with a national average of 7.9 percent. During 2008, the most recent year for which data is available, the town’s increase was 1.3 percent, compared with a national average of 8.9 percent.

“We think the program played a significant role in helping us reduce the claims’ increase,” Fruin said. “For every dollar we invested in wellness in the first two years of the program, we realized a $4.50 benefit due to a reduction in claims.”

Information from: The Pantagraph, http://www.pantagraph.com

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