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Wellness at work: learn how incorporating a workplace wellness program into your employee benefits package can increase productivity and reduce health-care costs.

IF IT'S NOON, IT MUST BE TIME FOR A stress-relieving yoga class or perhaps an abs-tightening workout at the health club located in the headquarters building. With the ever-increasing emphasis on health and fitness in our society, more and more associations are offering their employees wellness programs. Shawnree Baker, a business development representative at the National Association of Manufacturers, Washington, D.C., lost 15 pounds last year by exercising on her lunch hour. "I'm a working parent. This is an hour to myself that I can dedicate to workout sessions," she says. "When I come back from the gym, I'm refreshed. I'm ready to plunge ahead with my sales job because my endorphins have kicked in."


Baker is among the growing number of employees who take advantage of employer-sponsored wellness programs. "It's one of the reasons I stay at NAM," she says. "You can't beat the benefits." Baker uses the private health club in her building, finishing off a cardio session with a sauna and a soak in the whirlpool. If she's feeling stressed, she relaxes with a yoga class.

NAM pays for the health club and yoga classes, as well as flu shots, smoking cessation, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) courses, health fairs, and more. "Twice a month, we offer seated massages for employees," says Robert Cunningham, NAM's vice president of human resources and corporate services. "Taking a break from the workday to get a 15-minute massage is a popular benefit."

He estimates that about a third of the association's 170 employees frequent the health club on a regular basis and another third appear periodically. "Of course, we have the New Year's resolution group that uses it the first couple of weeks in January," says Cunningham.

At the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), Arlington, Virginia, most of the 130 employees participate in some part of the wellness program, says Gary Shapiro, president and CEO. "We believe in investing in our employees' health. We survey our employees every year and ask them what's important--from their salaries to their benefits." Evolving through the years, the program in place today encompasses the daily distribution of free fruit and other healthy foods; nutritional counseling; smoking cessation; participation in Weight Watchers; body-fat assessment; strength training; an in-house exercise room with weights, showers, and about 15 exercise machines; and discounted enrollment at a nearby gym, among other offerings. Initially, the only cost for CEA's program was staff time. The estimated cost for its current wellness program is a little more than $60,000 annually.

Shapiro tries to structure the programs so that they don't interfere with work, particularly during peak time periods. For example, CEA holds yoga classes twice a week during lunch and a corporate boot camp daily at 5:15 p.m. "Every boot camp is different, focusing on cardiovascular, stamina, strength, or resistance training," Shapiro explains. "Two of the five days focus on beginners. The other three days are pretty intense workouts."

Benefits that keep on working

"If associations are trying to provide benefits that interest employees and will have a lasting effect on their lives, they should look at wellness programs," says Valerie F. Lamm, owner, Workplace Wellness, LLC, Cumming, Georgia. "I don't think there's an employee out there who doesn't want to improve his or her health. Employees just don't know how to get the tools, the motivation, and the information to do it. When associations get behind the employee and wellness becomes a part of the workplace culture, employees can integrate wellness into their lives more easily."

What are the benefits? Lamm suggests reduced health-care costs, increased morale, higher productivity, and more teamwork. "A healthy employee equals a healthy association. People pull together in wellness programs, finding energy and strength from others' success," she says. Shapiro agrees: "For those who choose to participate, the wellness program allows employees to get to know each other. If you're sweating next to people [while] doing push-ups or running next to them, you're not likely to send them nasty e-mails the next morning. You're more likely to work things out [civilly]. Our program definitely builds teamwork and morale."

Michael J. Rosenfeld, senior consultant, Model Consulting, Trevose, Pennsylvania, points out that an employer-sponsored wellness program can sometimes prevent an employee's illness from becoming debilitating. "A certain percentage of your employees may have indicators for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or high glucose that will lead them to be chronically ill, causing high [health insurance] claims," he explains. "Through health-risk assessments and on-site testing, which are usually part of wellness programs, you may be able to make people aware of unknown conditions so that they can take precautions and change their behaviors. You can save lives and money."

Such savings can definitely be seen at the Consumer Electronics Association. "Our health-insurance premiums are a big portion of our benefits budget," Shapiro says. "By investing in our wellness program, we have seen our premiums go up only 24 percent during a four-year period. That's 6 percent per year, which is well below the national average." This is no doubt why Shapiro believes that the wellness program has more than paid for itself.

In addition to the moderating effect that wellness programs may have on escalating health-care costs, Shapiro cites the lure of the programs in attracting top talent. "We're a trade association, but we're competing for talent with private companies offering stock options and higher salaries. We want a competitive difference because we want the best and brightest employees. So we have to be creative in our approach to attracting them. A number of employees have come here to work because they are attracted to our wellness and exercise program." Offering a wellness program may make your association more competitive in recruiting staff as well.

Putting a program in place

Ready for a workout? Executives offer a number of suggestions for setting up a successful wellness program for your association.

Assess your association's top health risks. Identifying potential problems gives you a better idea of what specific programs to offer and gives you a reference point for future measurements. "Some employers know that they have a large percentage of people who smoke or who are physically inactive or diabetic," Lamm says. Take "that information and back it up with actual health-claim data." Insurance companies may be willing to share their overall claims statistics with employers, allowing association leaders to review trends in the most pressing employee health problems and begin tackling those first. "Associations should have a baseline of where they're starting and where they're going," Rosenfeld says.

Change your association culture, if necessary. For example, does your association pass out free donuts during staff meetings? Are employees allowed to smoke inside your building? "If your association has cultural issues that are contrary to the wellness program, you need to address them," Lamm says.

According to Cunningham, the culture at the National Association of Manufacturers encourages employees to adopt healthy lifestyles by keeping their professional and personal lives in balance. "We don't give medals to people who are working 15-hour days and Saturdays and Sundays," he explains. "We expect people to work hard during the day, and we have pretty high standards, but we also expect people to have personal lives. We want employees to be energized and refreshed, to take their vacations, and to spend time with their families or loved ones. We don't pressure them to work 70 to 80 hours a week. People who do that run down, which impacts their productivity."

Offer an incentive for participation. "You can structure an incentive program for any budget," Lamm says. "We have found that people will walk 80 miles for a gift certificate for a Thanksgiving turkey." Rosenfeld recommends tying your employee-reimbursement rates to participation in the wellness program. For example, if Jane Doe decides to fill out an annual health-risk assessment and allow annual blood tests at on-site health fairs, your association could pay for 80 percent of the cost of her health-care benefits. If she decides to opt out of the program, the association could lower its reimbursement rate to 70 percent.

Provide regular communication. Lamm's company offers association clients personalized Web sites where employees can access monthly programs, seminars, tools, and challenges. In January, for example, the challenge was "resolve to be healthy." She points out, though, that the goal was not to encourage employees to make New Year's resolutions that they were unlikely to keep, such as jogging 20 miles a week. "We [were] trying to make people aware of the simple things they [could] do to lead healthy lifestyles. For example, did you get seven hours of sleep last night? Did you take a multivitamin today? Did you take time for a 10-minute stress break?"

Encourage employees to walk before they run. Michael G. Davis, CEO, American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance, Reston, Virginia, recommends that employees who want to begin an exercise routine should first check with their doctors, particularly if they have pre-existing conditions. "We encourage people to start slowly," he says. "To maintain healthy lifestyles, people need to be physically active and watch other health choices. Exercise is not a panacea, but it certainly is a way to have a better quality of life."

Is he worried about the association's liability for promoting an active lifestyle among employees? Not really. "When I first got here as CEO about 8 1/2 years ago, our lawyer told me that we shouldn't encourage our staff to exercise because of liability concerns. I replied: 'That's easy to handle. We'll change lawyers.' You can run so scared about things that you're paralyzed," he continues. "Exercise is only a plus for our staff."

However, it is a common practice to have employees sign a waiver before they begin participating in a workplace wellness program. The waiver helps protect the employer from liability in the event that employees are injured or become ill while exercising.

No more excuses

If you think your association is too small or too poor to offer an employee wellness program, here's how to overcome three common challenges.

1. We can't afford it. When the Consumer Electronics Association first implemented its wellness program, the association charged employees a $10 pre-tax deduction per pay period for participation. CEA dropped the pay-as-you-sweat philosophy because it discouraged participation by employees who made less money than their counterparts, says Shapiro. "The cost is an obstacle, but you need to look at the long-term value of healthy employees," he explains. "Our insurance carrier |representative| indicates our wellness program has led to savings, but won't say how much. Health insurance companies charge based on the association's experience, and we definitely have a healthier staff because of our wellness program."

2. Our board wouldn't support it. "You don't ever want it to appear to your members or board that you are wasting money or coddling employees," says Shapiro. "Your board has to buy into it." Model Consulting's Rosenfeld suggests that executives use a bottom-line approach to convince board members of the value. "If you can prevent even one major illness through early screening, the program should pay for itself," he says. "The cost of a wellness program relative to the cost of health care is small. There are a lot of people who have no idea they're sick."

3. We don't have enough staff to run an effective wellness program. While major corporations, such as Goodyear, hire full-time wellness directors, most associations choose to incorporate the responsibilities into existing job descriptions. "We don't have the luxury of staff dedicated to the wellness program," says Cunningham of the National Association of Manufacturers. "We handle it out of the human resources |department|, with other people helping out. It's a team commitment. The challenge is not letting wellness |efforts| be overcome by the pressure of what staff members have to do every day in their real jobs."

If the work cannot be absorbed into existing positions, you can always consider outsourcing to companies similar to Lamm's, which offer turnkey, online wellness programs. Workplace Wellness charges $1.25 per employee per month, with a one-time set-up fee, for associations with 25 or more employees.

Encouraging employees to exercise and develop healthy lifestyles has become a major priority as employers across the nation engage in the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports (PCPFS) campaign to "Get America Moving." (For more information on the campaign, see the sidebar "Accepting the President's Challenge.") According to the PCPFS fact sheet on physical activity, physical inactivity and poor eating habits contribute to 400,000 preventable deaths a year in the United States alone. Perhaps your association should take advantage of National Physical Fitness and Sports Month next month to educate staff about healthy lifestyles and launch a wellness program of your own.

Want more information on this topic? Check out the "Outtakes and Exclusives" and "Link to Learn" areas at

RELATED ARTICLE: Accepting the President's Challenge

Are you active 30 minutes a day, five days a week? If not, you may want to find out more about The President's Challenge (, which encourages Americans to become more physically active. What began as a national youth fitness test has grown into a series of programs designed to help people choose healthier lifestyles.

"More than half of Americans are obese," says David B. Schmidt, executive vice president, International Food Information Council and Foundation (IFIC), Washington, D.C. "Obesity, which is at an all time high in the [United States], is a public health crisis that is already causing higher medical costs. As our population ages and the rate of diabetes increases, medical costs go up. We need to erase this trend."

That's one reason why the association recently became a national partner in The President's Challenge. IFIC, as well as several other associations, is distributing "10 Tips for Healthy Eating and Physical Activity," a brochure that provides information on nutrition and exercise. The brochure is available on the association's Web site ( In addition, the IFIC Foundation is working in partnership with The President's Challenge to promote healthy eating and physical activity for children and their families through, a Web site promoting healthy eating and active living for kids ages 9-12. "There is a lot of misinformation out there, particularly on the Internet," Schmidt says. "We favor sound nutrition not fad diets. It's the amount of food you eat not which foods you eat. You need to eat a balance and variety [of foods] and watch the total amount of calories" you consume.

The American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance, Reston, Virginia, became a partner in The President's Challenge "to walk the talk," says Michael G. Davis, CEO. "Our mission is to promote and support a healthy, active lifestyle." As part of its agreement with The President's Challenge, the association is a sponsor of the Presidential Active Lifestyle Award, which recognizes students who participate in and record daily physical activity of any type for five days per week, 60 minutes a day for six weeks.

Because of his professional affiliation, people frequently ask Davis, "What's the best exercise for me?" His answer: "Whatever you will do. Exercise is an integral part of life. People who are physically active receive myriad benefits, whether it's reduction of cancer risk or weight control."

He personally exercises daily--or close to it--and says, "If you can't find 30 to 45 minutes every day to exercise, you need to reprioritize your life."

Margo Vanover Porter is a freelance writer and editor based in Locust Grove, Virginia. E-mail:
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Author:Porter, Margo Vanover
Publication:Association Management
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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