As health care costs continue to skyrocket, corporate wellness programs can pay dividends in employee insurance expenses, as well as promote a sense of worth among staff.
That was one of the messages delivered last week at the Business Council of Fairfield County's "Be Fit Fairfield County" meeting attended by nearly 40 representatives of municipal governments, hospitals and businesses.
A challenge to having a successful wellness program focused on healthy eating and exercise can be simply delivering the message to employees and convincing them that participating will benefit them, according to Katherine Sullivan, health and group benefits consultant at the Stamford office of Towers Watson.
"Leadership is a key influencer of employee buy-in. We want employees to trust that what we're putting out doesn't have an agenda (to reduce coverage)," she said, adding that some companies offer gift cards, or cash or payroll credits to encourage participation. "One-day events draw attention and create excitement and a buzz."
Paying close attention to Sullivan and other speakers was Catherine Greenwood, human resources director for the town of Brookfield, who is determined to start a wellness program for municipal employees despite failing in a previous attempt.
"It's very difficult to get them involved in a program," said Greenwood, who registered only 10 out of 136 employees for a walking group, and only two fully participated, despite the fact that First Selectman William Davidson as an avid cyclist is an example of fitness. "It's hard to get them together from different departments as a collected group. Our Public Works Department staff is so physical in their work. How do we get them to change their eating habits?"
Greenwood said she is determined to try again after the start of the new year.
Communication with employees in a variety of methods on a near continual basis is essential, said Walter Watson, health and safety director at Stew Leonard's, the Norwalk-based grocery and wine store chain, which employs about 2,000 people from diverse cultures.
"That presents a challenge. We got our team members involved to see what we could do to help them. Our wellness program started officially seven or eight years ago," he said, adding that a goal has been to keep a lid on health care cost increases. "In 2011, we saw a 1 percent drop in health care costs."
Tauck Inc., the Norwalk-based travel company, started its wellness program in 2008.
"We noticed that much of our (health care) expenses related to lifestyle issues. We knew that until we changed employees' behavior, we weren't going to see any improvement," said Liz Malett, human resources manager.
Following an example set by the Wegmans Food Markets chain, the company started Tauck Healthy Living and formed a committee of employees, said Malett, who noted that free baskets of fruit spread throughout the offices are popular places to grab a snack.
"If they (employees) want junk food, they have to buy it," she said.
The Workplace, a Bridgeport-based quasi-government job training agency, helped organize the event.
"A health and wellness program is a great way to engage employers and educate small businesses on how to engage a diverse workforce," said Tom Long, spokesman for The Workplace, which runs the Add Us In Diversity Workforce, a program serving the disabled, including gay, lesbian and transgender people with disabilities.
Wellness is an important component of the health care reform legislation passed by Congress this year, said Lisa Mercurio, director of the Fairfield County Information Exchange, a unit of The Business Council.
"A real goal of the Health Care Act is to get people to address diabetes and heart issues before aggravated problems begin and become chronic," she said.
thus reducing health care costs and the need to seek expensive emergency care.
Early in the 1990s, the council started a wellness group in response to spiraling health insurance costs.
"What became apparent is that health was a fundamental business issue," said Christopher Bruhl, president and CEO of the council. "Healthy people are less expensive for an employer than unhealthy ones. It's a journey that begins with an apple."