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Worksite wellness is more a culture than a facility


The fact that this year’s conference on worksite wellness is sold out, and has been for some time, is a good sign to Kerry Juhl, the executive director of the Wellness Council of Iowa.

The council’s 14th Annual Conference on Worksite Wellness, will be held in Des Moines on Tuesday. Juhl said the overwhelming number of registrations her organization has received for the event suggests that employers of all sizes are increasingly promoting a healthful work environment as a way to combat expensive and reoccurring health-related problems, such as high benefits costs and absenteeism.

“Companies, in the past, haven’t been as involved with workplace wellness because they have seen it more as fluff instead of seeing it as a way that they could do better business,” Juhl said. “I think that we’ve kind of turned the ship, if you will.

“Now, with health-care costs continuing to increase and an aging working population, the health-care system is incredibly stressed. All of a sudden, employers, who provide health insurance benefits for a majority of the people, are saying, wait a minute, maybe if we keep people healthier, we won’t have quite the stress on the system.”

More than 100 Iowa employers are members of the Wellness Council, and about 25 of those have earned Well Workplace designations, meaning they have partnered with the council to develop results-oriented programs, and then applied to earn a bronze, silver, gold or platinum designation based on their efforts.

“All of our Well Workplaces have the same criteria, but their programs will look very different because their worksites, their industries and their demographics are different,” Juhl said. “But basically, they’re addressing the issues that are affecting their own employees’ health, whether that’s supportive managers, good communication, healthy choices in the vending machine, walking paths, ergonomically correct work stations – everything that impacts the way an employee performs really needs to be considered when you’re talking about employee wellness.”

Juhl said as employers realize they have a vested interest they have in building a healthful workplace, they find that the potential for reducing health-care costs is only one of many benefits they and their employees will receive when effective worksite wellness plans are implemented.

“The research is out there that employers who have a results-oriented wellness program notice a reduction in health insurance costs, increased productivity, an improvement in morale and a reduction in absenteeism,” she said.

One of the Wellness Council’s award-winning businesses, Ottumwa Regional Health Center, has reported a substantial improvement in some of these areas since becoming a member of the council.

“They are a first-time gold Well Workplace recipient this year,” Juhl said. “They have seen tremendous outcomes, both financially and with participation. Their wellness program participation rates increased from 62 percent in 1997 to 98 percent in 2004. Also, employee absenteeism has dropped 25 percent among participants in the wellness program versus non-participants.”

Juhl said the nation’s well-publicized battle against obesity has turned people’s attention toward the place where many Americans spend a majority of their waking hours – the workplace. Obesity has also brought national efforts to promote worksite wellness back to where they all started, with targeted initiatives on fitness and nutrition.

“We had moved more into the mind and spirit – the holistic approach – and I think that’s critical, but as a nation, with the obesity epidemic, we realize that we need to go back to nutrition, exercise, stress management and medical self-care,” she said. “The worksite provides a captive audience for educating people on these issues.”

Juhl said the expectation is not that employers take it upon themselves to change the behavior of individual workers, but that they create environments that support the healthful behavior of employees who decide to make changes. That increases the chances that employees will carry the healthful habits home with them.

She also said a common misconception is that companies cannot have a wellness program if they aren’t able to incorporate an on-site fitness center. Fitness, she said, is only one component in a Well Workplace culture.

“One of the biggest things Americans struggle with is work-life balance,” she said. “The challenge is taking care of ourselves first so that we can perform better.”

By listening to workers and finding where their biggest barriers are to good health, employers can incorporate things that best suit their environment. August Home Publishing Co., a new Well Workplace bronze award winner, has tried free fruit for employees, yoga over lunch, walking programs and fitness assessments. Michal Sigel, the company’s professional development director, says the wellness program they’ve carried out has been specially geared to their 190 employees.

“The one thing about us being a publishing company is that we’re full of creative people,” Sigel said. “We try to look for activities that are maybe a little bit outside the box, what people might not expect. The response has been very favorable, and it really seemed to round out the benefits that August Home offers.”

Another company, Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., which is now one of four platinum companies, has noticed significant improvements in employee morale, according to Jill Norris, the company’s health services and benefits manager.

“We hear from employees that our wellness program is one of the best benefits that they’ve received in a long time,” she said. “One employee said that they feel better physically, mentally and emotionally. Others have said our wellness emphasis was one of the factors in them choosing to work here.”

Juhl said membership dues in the Wellness Council range from $365 to $2,950, based on the services the company wants to receive. On top of that, research from Dr. Ron Goetzel, an expert on employee health, indicates that companies can expect to invest $100 to $150 per employee in a workplace wellness program. Such programs are not cheap or easy to start, but not starting one could be more expensive in the long run, Juhl said.

“If you take a look at what you’re paying for health insurance per employee, and just take a fraction of that and put it towards prevention for employees, you can see a significant return,” she said.

To learn more about the Wellness Council of Iowa, visit its Web site at www.wellnessiowa.org.

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