Increased productivity is among the several benefits that accrue to a company that initiates wellness programmes for its employees

Kelli Kolsrud walks the walk. A contributor to a 500page research report on wellness programmes, Kolsrud can personally attest to the benefits of being well. “I’m really really glad that we can , do this,” Kolsrud said during lunchtime laps around the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, where she is a Senior Information Specialist.

Most workdays, she slips into her sneakers and joins 68 of her co-workers as they log their mileage around the building, which is set in a wooded lot. To encourage fitness, the International Foundation is offering US$150 for each employee completing 420 laps (168 miles) by November.

“For me, it does show that the employer cares whether I am healthy or not,” Kolsrud said. “I appreciate that it is a kind of a nudge for me to get out there and do these things.”

The International Foundation report, based on sur veys from 464 employers in the United States and Canada, found that 62 per cent of the organisations had wellness programmes for their workers. Another 15 per cent said they intended to offer such plans.

When asked to identify the perceived benefits of their initiatives, employers cited improved employee health, higher morale, lower medical claims, reduced absenteeism, increased productivity and decreased turnover.

But 41 per cent of the employers surveyed said they did not know how wellness plans benefited their organisations. And 87 per cent said they did not know what sort of return on investment their programmes generated.

Those findings suggest that many employers offer wellness benefits either out of altruism or on blind faith that there is a payoff. The danger, says Kolsrud, is that without evidence of an investment return, employers are less likely to commit to wellness in the long run.

“They might not continue it if they do not take the time to assess what the benefits are and what the return on investment is. I do think that’s really important,” Kolsrud said. “If money becomes tight in an organisation, it’s the programmes that can prove their return on investment that get to stay. So it’s really a business decision to have a wellness programme because you can have a substantial return on investment from having one.”

Midwest power company We Energies has figured returns ranging from US$1.80 and US$2.38 for every US$1 it puts into employee wellness, based on cost savings from medical, drug and worker’s compensation ex penses, as well as reduced absenteeism.

And that’s a conservative estimate, says Cindy Schaefer, Manager of Health Promotion for the utility.

“We believe that keeping our employees well and healthy and trying to support that is the right thing to do,” Schaefer says, “because we get the productivity. We get the morale. We get the softer side of things, in addition to the value that we see in a quantifiable way .”

Escalating health care costs motivated We Energies a decade ago to launch health education and promotion initiatives at work, Schaefer says.

For similar reasons, Robert W. Baird & Co. stepped up its wellness efforts a year ago, including screenings and assessments to help employees identify and address potential health risks. A year ago, 95 per cent of Baird’s 2,200 employees participated in the assessments, up from 40 per cent the year before. “We are thinking positive and fully expect that we will see return on our investment,” says Lori Lorenz, Baird’s Human Resources Director.

Brookfield-based technology services company Fiserv Inc., in the third year of its wellness drive, is seeing positive trends in employee nutrition, physical activity and tobacco use, according to Linda Schuessler, the company’s Wellness Promotion Manager.

“In the corporate world, you always want to measure results,” Schuessler said. “It is very gratifying, too, to see that there are changes, that people are reacting in a very positive way, and that eventually it does mean that we are doing the right thing.”

After years of health care cost hikes, more employers are looking to well ness for relief. She adds, “There’s a lot of research that indicates that anywhere from 50 to 70 per cent of health care costs are directly related to lifestyle.”

“It is the good news and the bad news, because it’s preventable. I think it’s the pot of gold that’s been pretty much untapped,” qualifies Deborah Seyler, Executive Director of the Wellness Council of Wisconsin.

Courtesy: McClatchy-Tribune (MCT) Information Services