June Is National Employee Wellness Month

As millions of students are graduating from high schools, universities, graduate schools and technical schools, many are hoping to enter the workforce as soon as they can. There has been much talk about the changing climate of health care – especially as it relates to employers keeping their costs contained..

For many companies, the realization that it is in their best interest (not to mention, their bottom line), to have happy and healthy employees, has been a slow climate change. The desire for instant return on investment (ROI) to justify cost does may leave some companies skeptical – but others are taking a proactive approach. Employers pay 36 percent more for health care than five years ago and employees are paying 44 percent more.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, preventable, lifestyle-related chronic diseases drive 75 percent of health care spending. Ninety-five percent of these costs are spent on treatment, with only five percent used for prevention. According to Chris Boyce, CEO of Virgin HealthMiles, “Seventy percent of Americans are inactive.”

The associated ailments of activity are back and knee injuries, hypertension, weight gain and high cholesterol. What follows are diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and some cancers.

Like a Virgin
You may be wondering, what is Virgin HealthMiles? It’s not a gym in the sky. Richard Branson may have the Midas touch for business, but his heart is in the right place. Boyce explained that Branson wanted to have a product to help people live healthier and happier lives. Branson’s vision was to create a business to help companies incentivize wellness. Their current portfolio of clients has over 120 companies and more than 700,000 employees enrolled.

Right now, there are 40,000 people in 90 companies throughout the U.S. competing against each other to be the most physically active. They are getting their results in real time. Participants receive a pedometer that transmits the results into the data base. No more dependence on user input for tracking (or cheating). Social networking has become an integral part of the program and is helping to promote a culture of wellness in a fun and easy manner.

What Are the Costs?
For employers, the cost is $20 per employee. There is a calculator on the Virgin HealthMiles website for employers to determine their savings (us.virginhealthmiles.com). It is up to the company to decide what to reward their employees with… for some, it is reduced cost of health insurance, gift cards to local retailers and ins some companies, up to $500 back for reaching health goals.

Real Rewards
The real reward is improved health outcomes – as the number crunchers see improvements in blood pressure, blood glucose, cholesterol, and heart rate. Lower numbers means decreased costs for illness. The Ochsner health system in Lousiana had 81 percent enrollment in Virgin HealthMiles program. Half of their employee members earned premium discounts in 2010: 89 percent improved or maintained their BMI, 82 percent lowered or maintained their blood pressure. Show me the money? Ochsner’s 2010 health plan costs only increased by three percent compared to a national average of ten percent AND employee-only medical claims were down compared to 2008 by $3 million.

Among the most important gains for companies are the intangibles. According to LuAnn Heinen, Vice President of the National Business Group on Health, “employees are more engaged at their job and in their workplace, have greater job satisfaction and commitment to their employer because their employer cares about their health.”

Changes in the Workplace
Heinen added that part of that culture change includes improvements in foods offered in cafeterias and vending machines, walking paths, and open stairwells for walking. Some employers, like the Cleveland Clinic, encourage “walking meetings” where employees display colored tags to let others know they are in a meeting and not to be disturbed.

STOP Obesity
Literally. Strategies to Overcome and Prevent (STOP) Obesity Alliance is a sponsor of the third annual National Employee Wellness Month in partnership with Virgin HealthMiles. Just about every national health care organization is a member of the STOP Obesity Alliance, because there is more power in numbers in order to improve the health of Americans.

This topic is near and dear to me because my doctoral research was in worksite wellness. We spend more hours each day and week at work, so removing barriers to improved health – especially opportunities to increase daily physical activity, are relatively inexpensive things that people can do while at work. My favorite tip: take a five minute walk every hour… you can accumulate 40 minutes of physical activity in an eight-hour work day. More is even better, but this is a great way to start.

Felicia D. Stoler, DCN, MS, RD, FACSM is a doctorally trained registered dietitian, exercise physiologist, TV personality and expert consultant in disease prevention, wellness and healthy living. She is the author of "Living Skinny in Fat Genes: The Healthy Way to Lose Weight and Feel Great." She hosted TLC's groundbreaking series "Honey We're Killing the Kids!" Become a fan of Felicia on Facebook, follow her on Twitter or visit her website FeliciaStoler.com