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Sweat Equity

Companies Help Employees Crunch Thier Numbers
A more holistic approach to health and wellness within area companies is becoming the norm, due
to the benefits wellness programs can have on a workforce. And while employees shed pounds, many companies are also shaving expenses.

InClaire D’Amour-Daley, Big Y’s vice president for Corporate Affairs, was reminded of how much her company’s employee wellness program has evolved recently at a corporate meeting.

Reaching for a Big Y donut, she instead found a plate of apples. It was an interesting discovery; those apples had never been there before.

"Those donuts are so good," she said. "But it’s nice to have other options. Otherwise, we’d eat the donuts."

That dozen apples on the boardroom table next to a dozen glazed was proof that health, nutrition, fitness, and overall employee wellness is becoming more of a focus in the corporate arena.

Many area businesses already have established wellness programs for employees, however a growing trend within companies of all sizes is added attention on those programs, and the expansion of wellness services for staff, with the goal of better integrating healthy habits into their lives at work or otherwise.

Some of those changes are small, such as encouraging employees to take the stairs whenever possible during their workday.

Others may seem subtle, but are poignant in that they reflect changing attitudes. At Big Y, for example, former fitness director, Pam Ouellette, recently received a new title — wellness director — and an expanded set of responsibilities in order to better address employee health within the Big Y corporation.

The reclassification of her position is indicative of the overall shift in focus within many corporate fitness programs — from simply offering an in-house gym for employees to creating a broad spectrum of wellness initiatives and activities designed to improve employees’ overall health and happiness.

More and more businesses are taking the health of their employees seriously, and realizing that good employee health isn’t just an altruistic endeavor, but a smart business move as well.

BusinessWest looks this month at some of the health and fitness programs in place within area businesses, and how they are growing and changing to keep the Western Mass. workforce on the road to wellness.

Here’s the Skinny

Wellness programs are not relegated to more-corporate settings like MassMutual and Big Y; a wide spectrum of businesses offer comprehensive fitness programs to employees, including colleges, medical centers, and nonprofits. Western New England College, for instance, kick-started its employee wellness program 10 years ago, and, like Big Y, it recently made some staffing and programming changes to emphasize its growing importance to the staff pool.

The college’s core wellness initiative, WorkWell, has grown in and of itself over the past decade, said Cyndi Constanzo, wellness and recreation director for WNEC.

"There has historically been a lot of institutional support," she said. "We really bought into the notion of employee wellness, and we have had great opportunities to bring programs to employees and their families because of that support."

Costanzo said that for every dollar the college invests in employee wellness and fitness, $2 is returned. But that statistic is based on qualitative, not quantitative results and research, so she said the real value of wellness programs is often hard to prove. This is one of the reasons why more-comprehensive programs are only now being seen in organizations of all sizes.

"In the past I think it has been a hard sell," she said. "But now there is a move to jump-start employee wellness initiatives because the benefits — the cost savings, especially in health insurance — are being brought into the limelight.

"Now, most people see at least some value in the area of employee wellness."

Dr. David Artzerounian, MassMutual’s medical director, agreed that wellness initiatives are at or near the top of many boardroom agendas.

"For us, good health is good business," he said. "Employees feel better, and they accomplish more; managers see it as a win, because they are more likely to meet their corporate objectives. And in the long run, the company saves money."

In fact, the Healthy Workforce 2010 initiative, a federal program that operates under the auspices of the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, serves as the framework for many corporate fitness programs. The national initiative’s sourcebook for employers states that the leading causes of death in America are, in some way, linked to personal behaviors, such as tobacco use and diet and activity patterns. Further, guidelines for employers instituting wellness programs in their facilities include the major reasons why healthy practices in the workplace are beneficial to employees as well as employers. These include increased productivity, reduced absenteeism, lower health care costs, and an improved corporate image.

Anne-Marie Szmyt, director of WorkLife Strategies for Baystate Health Systems, said the statistics that measure the success of wellness programs can take some time to develop, as the outcomes of prevention efforts are usually harder to gauge than initiatives put in place to address existing problems, health-related or otherwise.

"You don’t see a change in health care costs immediately," she said, "but the anecdotal evidence is strong. A sense of loyalty begins to develop within the workforce very quickly, and later you see less turnover of employees.

"Companies need to decide which wellness programs they will invest in, and remain invested for the long term," Szmyt continued. "There are a lot of studies out there that show that any increase in a better sense of well-being among employees leads to better productivity."

And wellness programs can be facilitated at either a high or low cost, she added, depending on an individual organization’s budget or size.

"There are a number of resources out there, many free, that can assist in setting up workplace programs," she said. "The important thing is that you don’t put it off, in part because it takes a while to see those positive results."

Wellness programs are also generally ongoing and constantly developing initiatives. An organization might start with an on-site fitness center or program, for instance, and later move on to adjusting food choices, educational programs, and the promotion of behaviors that can be easily incorporated into daily life.

Szmyt said corporate wellness programs as a whole seem to be moving in a more holistic direction, moving away from solely fitness interventions and focusing on the overall health of all employees and their families. Costanzo agreed; while the facilities many companies have, like Baystate’s central fitness center or WNEC’s ëHealthful Living Center,’ are excellent capstones to fitness programs, they are only one piece of a much larger puzzle.

WNEC, for instance, has instituted classes in smoking cessation, ëbrown bag’ lunch talks on a variety of health issues, and courses specifically tailored to those employees with particularly physical jobs, said Costanzo, including maintenance and grounds staff, to help them avoid injury at work.

"You have to tailor wellness programs to the employees who need them most, and that’s often the employees in jobs with large physical components," she said. "Employees need to be healthy to work, but also need to be well in order to care for their families and complete other tasks."

"Many wellness efforts extend far beyond the fitness centers," added Artzerounian. "We are focused on educating our employees on the health risks they may have, such as weight problems, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure, as well as lowering those risk factors."

Like many local companies, MassMutual has long had a comprehensive wellness department that has garnered added attention in recent years. To underscore the importance of wellness and fitness initiatives within MassMutual, the company’s fitness center was moved into the main State Street building in 2003 (it had once been across the street), and all fitness programs were given an added boost in the form of increased budgets for new exercise equipment, educational programs, and other initiatives, at all MassMutual locations.

In addition to increased corporate support of wellness programs, employees in several organizations are also beginning to see added incentives to healthy living at their workplaces, designed to make fitness programs more attractive and more widely used as they become more expansive.

Costanzo said employees are now offered ërelief time,’ that is awarded after a certain number of hours of exercise, allowing staff to come in late or leave early from work. That incentive in particular has attracted several employees to the planned wellness activities at WNEC — about 350 employees are regularly working out in order to earn time out.

D’Amour-Daley said her company has a program similar to WNEC’s, offering employees that take advantage of corporate fitness programs extra time off from work. But, conversely, she said charging employees to work out in the Big Y fitness center has also proven effective.

"Memberships are available to all employees, but they’re not free," she said. "We’ve found that people are more apt to go to the gym if they have to pay for it; they don’t take for granted that it’s there for them to use, and the payroll deductions are a constant reminder to get up and go."

Big Y also holds weight-loss challenges intermittently, offering a cash prize to the employees that shed the most pounds. D’Amour-Daley said the recent expansion of programming company-wide has been in response to a nationwide trend as well as the need to address fitness and wellness within a growing company — and among the group of employees that work too far away from Big Y’s Springfield-based corporate offices to take advantage of gym-centered programs.

"We started our fitness programs with an in-house fitness center," she said, "But the change in our fitness director’s title and responsibilities is a direct reflection of the greater challenge we have taken on to address wellness in all of our locations. We want our wellness programs to get to the whole person."

Varied programs help the company bring wellness initiatives to each of its stores in Massachusetts and Connecticut, such as the dissemination of health and nutrition information, contests like the ë10,000 steps a day’ program that issues pedometers to all employees and challenges them to take 10,000 steps daily, and Weight Watchers groups. Employees also recently attended a screening of last-year’s smash documentary Super Size Me to glean information about smart food choices.

"We’re in the food biz," said D’Amour-Daley, "So health, fitness, and nutrition initiatives are a natural fit."

Paying attention to the everyday challenges that all people face, like a tray of donuts at a board meeting, is intrinsic to creating a fitness and wellness program that will be both effective and sustainable, said Tina Manos, manager of the Wellness Activities Center at MassMutual. Manos said each department of any given company has the potential to better the health of its direct staff, and addressing wellness in all corporate areas rather than just through a specific wellness department is the best way to incorporate a culture shift.

Everyone is different; those prone to grabbing fast food in the cafeteria can be helped with more healthy food options, for instance, and Manos said people new to exercise programs that may need some extra guidance could benefit from a daily walking group or nutrition class. Others still may need strategies to blend physical activity into their already hectic lives.

"Programs that address the hesitancy some people may have toward exercise are very important," she said, adding that one of the new initiatives MassMutual has incorporated into its wellness repertoire is a series of exercise options designed to fit into a compressed time period — ideal for people who have little time in their busy schedules to add a fitness regimen. "The program is designed to help employees see that there are things they can do in a half-hour to exercise."

Donut Disturb

"There has been a huge commitment lately to wellness and a big part of that commitment is making fitness more accessible and convenient," said Manos.

Convenient, yes, but also all-inclusive, available to help employees through each part of their workday and beyond — from that morning trip to the gym to that last, late afternoon pastry temptation.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]