Some employers helping workers get fit
June 05, 2011 @ 12:00 AM
HUNTINGTON — In January, Huntington Physical Therapy and the HIT Center turned what they do for the outside world inside.
After years of caring for everyone else, owner and physical therapist Sally Oxley took a hard look at helping her employees take better care of themselves.
“I’d been reading about workplace wellness programs and decided we needed to have one because we are a health care facility and we need to practice good health habits,” she said. “We’re also self-insured so the added bonus is that we can save money, which means more money for our staff.”
A February 2008 study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine showed that employers can save $1.65 in health care expenses for every dollar spent on a comprehensive employee wellness program. The federal government has even acknowledged the benefits of wellness programs, offering federal grant money to help small employers launch programs and allowing reductions on the cost of premiums to employees who participate, through the new health care reform bill, the Affordable Care Act.
Still, it is not always easy for employers to get involved in the health and well-being of their employees.
“By and large, employers aren’t in the business of the personal health of their employees,” said Dr. Brian Caveney from Duke University. “It’s one thing to buy a health plan. It’s another to change the daily personal habits of employees. It’s not as easily solved as smoking, because eating is something we all have to do every day.
“We have to empower each individual worker to know more about their situation with education and tools and resources to make better choices.”
Amy Hanshaw, executive director of the HIT Center, got to work on developing a program modeled after what the HIT Center already does in helping its clients eat healthier and exercising. That includes establishing initial testing, workout protocol, a point system and logs for tracking weight and exercise time.
According to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, employers who invest in worksite health promotion programs see improved morale, reduced turnover, healthcare cost containment and/or reduction and reduced absenteeism.
Sharon Covert at the Wellness Council of West Virginia said setting up such a program often depends on the size of the company.
“Small companies might set up challenges with another company or use incentives in their office. This gets the competitive juices flowing. The largest companies can set up workplace gyms, so they’re at an advantage,” she said.
The key, Caveney said, is reaching the right group of employees.
“There will always be a small group who think an employer’s going too far. People who already have extremely healthy outlooks and lifestyles are the most likely to sign up. The key is designing a program that reaches the people right on the edge of making changes who need that extra little push,” he said.
Oxley said the staff at the HIT Center would be happy to work with employers looking to set up a wellness program, and additional free resources are available through the Wellness Council of West Virginia. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is another option, offering LEAN Works!, a free web-based program that provides tools for designing effective worksite obesity prevention and control programs.
The bottom line is the difference it makes to employees like the HIT Center’s Angie Slomke, who lost nearly 40 pounds and won her company’s three-month wellness initiative by being deemed the person who gained the “highest fitness level.”
“I knew I needed to have a healthier lifestyle and when they offered the program, it seemed like a great way to do it,” she said. “I had the support of the staff and I was happy with the way the program was set up. I wrote down everything I ate and worked out seven days a week.”
“Everyone considered this a lifestyle change, not a diet,” Oxley said. “We hope to have other employees join in and become healthier alongside us.”