Jim Leimkuhler, the president of Progressive Produce Corp. in Los Angeles, was conversing with a couple of his employees one day early this summer when he saw they were wearing an UP wrist band, which tracks several components of living a healthier lifestyle.
“In that same time frame, I was talking about implementing a Wellness Program with my health insurance provider (Western Growers Assurance Trust). I thought, ‘What if I get one of these UP bands for all employees?’ We did and it has been very cool.”
Ultimately the goal is to create a healthier workforce, lower health care costs and just make the employees more health conscience, Leimkuhler said. “But as a side benefit, we have created a better working atmosphere with more camaraderie. We have people on the night shift that never knew people on the day shift, but now they are talking to them and discussing their exercise programs. This is definitely a positive, unintended consequence that is an equal benefit to what we hoped to achieve.”
Patty Benkowski, vice president of operations for WGAT, said the vast majority of companies that are part of the WGAT family currently have some type of Wellness Program. She said the program that Progressive enacted this summer is an employer-driven program that puts it in a relatively elite group. Not only did Progressive provide the fairly expensive UP bands to about 60 administrative personnel who wanted to be involved, but it also proactively created a game of the fitness program by assigning all participants to teams that engage in some friendly health-inspired competitions. By September, company spokesperson Connie Stuckenberg said the eight teams — each with their own creative name — had participated in a couple of contests with the winning team members receiving gift cards. One of the activities the UP band monitors is the number of steps a wearer takes each day. The contest rewarded both the individual with the most steps in a finite period, as well as the team that had “traveled” the most, step by step.
“The contests really encourage people to go take a walk for 20 minutes if they have the time rather than just sit around,” Stuckenberg said, adding that there has been a little bit of friendly peer pressure with your fellow team members encouraging you to exercise.
Leimkuhler said the “steps contest” is just the tip of the iceberg and the company is currently exploring other opportunities to improve the wellness of its employees.
Benkowski said a good example of an employee-driven Wellness Program is one that offers gym club membership at a discounted rate. The employer will reward an employee for joining a club by paying for the membership, but the impetus to join is on the employee’s shoulders.
An employer-driven program has a more proactive approach. “Some employers will give a gift card or another incentive if employees join a fitness program,” she said, adding that sponsoring competitions is another favored approach.
Because of the expensive cost of the UP bands and the involvement of company executives, Benkowski put the Progressive Wellness Program at a fairly advanced level. She added that some companies go even a step further and offer health risk assessments for each employee and even biometric screening. These programs are designed to further define the workforces’ risk for various diseases such as heart attacks or diabetes. By having more information, individual or company-wide programs can be adopted to reduce health risks. Benkowski said that employers wishing to take their Wellness Programs to this very high level typically have to engage in significant incentive programs to encourage participation. For example, an employer with a health insurance program that calls for employees to pay 25 percent of the total cost, might waive that financial participation if the employee participates in both a health risk assessment and biometric screening.
The rewards of a Wellness Program are many. While employers typically are attracted to such a program because of the desire to lower health costs, Benkowski said side benefits are equally important. Within about six weeks of starting a proactive program with significant employee involvement, she said health benefits will begin to accrue. Not only will employees start feeling better, but absentee rates will drop and productivity often improves. And as Jim Leimkuhler and Progressive have discovered, company morale can also get a big boost. He said employees are already noting the positive aspects of the program during performance evaluations. “The whole idea of our program is to get our people to consciously think about their health and put living a healthy life style on the top of their priority list.”
He is absolutely certain that a healthier workforce will be better for the company in more ways than can be articulated.
Benkowski said that the actual financial benefit of improved employee health resulting in better health insurance rates takes a couple of years to manifest itself. She added that interested employers should contact their Western Growers Insurance Services account executives to help them custom design a Wellness Program.
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