Worker Wellness Programs Could Help Bottom Lines

March 13, 2009

In today’s volatile economy, corporations must train a watchful eye on costs to keep their doors open and their employees on the payroll. Obesity-related medical spending often constitutes a major business expense, at a cost of about $45 billion annually for private employers.

However, a new analysis suggests that investing in employer-sponsored health programs could improve companies’ bottom lines by reducing medical claim costs.

“It’s a win-win opportunity — employers and employees can benefit from a healthier workforce,” said LuAnn Heinen, vice president of the National Business Group on Health and the article’s lead author.

Heinen and coauthor Helen Darling analyzed four employer-sponsored wellness programs targeting a combined 75,000 employees. The findings appear in the March issue of The Milbank Quarterly.

One program, a hospital system that offered free annual health checks, Weight Watchers at Work and an on-site fitness facility, reported direct cost savings — a 40 percent drop in medical costs over a three-year period for the 324 participating employees, a savings of more than $1 million, Heinen said.

“The most advanced and successful approaches go beyond assuming that obesity starts and ends with personal responsibility,” Heinen said.

In another program sponsored by a utility company with 6,000 employees, 352 employees lost an average of seven pounds during a 12-week weight management program at work.

A food manufacturer with 27,000 employees ran a program that featured a weight-loss competition. In 2005, 23 percent of employees who participated had a body mass index (BMI) greater than or equal to 30 (considered obese), but by 2008, only 6 percent of participating employees had a BMI in that range.

What’s the bottom line? Workplace programs had positive results when they took a multipronged approach — including offering healthy foods in the cafeteria and vending machines, providing physical activity opportunities and fostering a workplace culture that supports health, Heinen said.

Jennifer Huberty, Ph.D., assistant professor of physical activity in health promotion at the University of Nebraska at Omaha agreed with the authors’ recommendations that environmental changes are vital to the success of workplace wellness programs.

However, she discouraged the authors’ suggested use of incentives, such as offering cash or insurance premium discounts. “It can manipulate someone to do it for a little while, but will they continue?” Huberty said. “Employers have to ask themselves, ‘Am I teaching a behavior that is going to be used for a long time?'”

For cost-conscious companies, implementing obesity prevention at work need not be prohibitively expensive, Heinen said. She recommended creating a wellness committee, led by employees who have had success in health and fitness. From there, employers can take simple steps, such as requiring vendors to provide healthy snack options and providing pedometers to employees to encourage physical fitness, she said.


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