Company Wellness Programs: They’re Not Just for the Big Guys Anymore

March 16, 2010

It’s no secret that large corporations have been cutting costs by encouraging employees to use on-site, in-house wellness programs, some replete with healthy dining facilities and gymnasiums. However, wellness programs aren’t just for big companies any more. In fact, two Illinois-based medium-sized businesses, Mechanical Devices, Co. (Bloomington) and the Town of Normal have implemented wellness programs of their own, and are finding that their employees are happier – and healthier – as a result.

Linda Fillingham, co-owner and office manager of the 250-employee Mechanical Devices, Co., thought screenings would be a good way to dispense health information to her staffers, and also motivate improvements where they were needed. In 2005, she contacted OSF St. Joseph Medical Center’s Center for Healthy Lifestyles, and the screenings were subsequently held in the employee lunchroom, at her company’s expense.

Of the program, Linda said, smiling, “”It was voluntary but I had to twist some arms. We had close to 80 percent participation.” She added, “It’s totally private. I don’t see individual numbers, just overall numbers.” But she is aware that some people had results that were not what 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.”

One such employee was Richard Hetherington of Bloomington, who told the Insurance Journal, “I hadn’t been to a doctor in a long time because I felt fine,” he said. But after his screening results showed he had high blood pressure and cholesterol and was on the verge of being diabetic, he made changes like beginning a blood pressure medicine regimen, eating less, and reducing carbohydrates and sodium. 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.

Today, Hetherington, who is now 65 years old, continues to control his weight and blood pressure by watching what he eats, riding his bike when the weather allows, and lifting weights when he gets home from work. Of his current health, he said, “I just feel better.”

In addition to annual health screenings, Mechanical Devices also offered smoking cessation classes as part of the company’s preparation to go smoke-free two years ago. “I got 10 to 15 (employees) to stop smoking and everyone else (other smokers) reduced smoking,” Fillingham said.

Quality control employee Jackie Felts joined the eight-week anti-smoking program in January 2007, and, after a plan that included weekly meetings, counseling, advice, and a nicotine patch, finally quit on February 13, 2007.

46-year-old Bloomington resident Felts said, “I feel 100 percent better. 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.”

Fillingham added that while the program does cost the company money, she believes that when there are fewer employees having heart attacks and other expensive medical problems there will be savings. “Employees who feel good about themselves do well for you,” she said. “They are your most valuable asset.”

Similarly, the Town of Normal also began offering occasional health and wellness programs for employees several years ago, but according to Geoff Fruin, assistant to the city manager, “…it was a hands-off approach. 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 Advocate BroMenn (then known as BroMenn Healthcare) and agreed to a pilot program whereby, beginning in September, 2006, Marcy Kaufman of BroMenn would be the town’s on-site wellness specialist 20 hours a week.

Kaufman now offers health screenings at several town locations, including City Hall, the fire stations, parks and recreation and public works. In addition exercise classes, fitness equipment orientations, lunch-and-learn presentations on topics like improving nutrition and back-safety, are also offered, and employees can sign up to receive emailed newsletters with health tips.

Kaufam is also in charge of fitness incentive programs, such as last summers “Get Fit on 66” in which employees participating in various wellness activities earned rewards like water bottles, gift cards, t-shirts, and pedometers.

Fruin shared that 213 of the 370 full-time town employees participated in at least one wellness program last year, and that the participation rate continues to increase. An annual survey of employees includes testimonials about weight loss, blood pressure being under control, and cholesterol being reduced, as well as overall healthier eating and exercise habits.

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

In fact, the town of Normal may already be experiencing a financial benefit.

In 2006, the average increase in health insurance claims for the town was 14.2 percent, against a national average of only 7.9 percent. In 2008 – the most recent year for which data is available – the town’s increase was only 1.3 percent, while the national average was 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.”