Getting well in ‘Well Cities’

wellcity

Fox Cities, Oshkosh working hard to build coalitions to improve employees’ health and attain the Holy Grail – lower health insurance costs

Story by Cheryl Hentz

MORE THAN 75 PERCENT OF EMPLOYERS’ healthcare costs and productivity losses are related to employee lifestyle choices, according to the Centers for Disease Control. People who engage in unhealthy habits such as smoking, having a poor diet and not getting enough exercise turn out to be less productive on the job, new Dutch research shows. Unhealthy lifestyle choices also appear to translate into a greater need for sick leave and longer periods of time off from work when sick leave is taken. The findings were reported in the Sept. 28 online edition of the journal

Occupational & Environmental Medicine

“MORE THAN 10 PERCENT of sick leave and the higher levels of productivity loss at work may be attributed to lifestyle behaviors and obesity,” said Alex Burdorf, of the department of public health at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and colleagues noted in a news release from the journal’s publisher. 

Between 2005 and 2009, Burdorf and his associates surveyed more than 10,600 people who worked for 49 different companies in the Netherlands. Among obese workers, 83 percent said they had developed at least one disease, compared with 75 percent of overweight workers and 69 percent of normal weight men and women. With respect to productivity, 44 percent felt they performed less than optimally in the day before taking the survey.

It is for these reasons that wellness programs have become an important component to companies’ employee improvement programs, and an almost necessary factor in reducing healthcare costs. One of the most effective wellness initiatives is the Well City program. 

Well City USA is a concept created in 1991 by the Wellness Council of America, a national non-profit organization and leading resource for health and wellness promotion. Well City challenges local business communities to work together toward building healthier communities, starting in the workplace. Achieving a Well City designation requires that 20 percent of a community’s working population must be employed by Well Workplace recognized companies or organizations.

What makes them so successful is that Well City programs take the wellness efforts of individual companies to a new level by creating synergies, sharing best practices and providing shared education and support. There are Well City programs all across the United States but one of the newest is in the Fox Cities. 

Barbara Van Gorp, vice president of employee benefits for McClone Insurance in Menasha, became one of the driving forces behind Well City – Fox Cities, after attending a continuing education program last year where one of the speakers was representing Well City – Milwaukee. 

“I was encouraged by this for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve been selling health insurance for 33 years and during that time I’ve seen that nothing really works to curb the rising cost of healthcare. Insurance is expensive because healthcare is expensive. It just seemed to me that if we could make people healthier by the things that are lifestyle-driven, and about 70 to 80 percent of the diseases out there are a result of the poor lifestyle choices that we make, that would help,” she said. “The second thing was, I’ve been involved in wellness programs for years as a broker and an employee and they usually are tied to your insurance carrier or your healthcare system. But if your employer changes your carrier or your provider panel, you have to start all over again. This way at least, the healthy things people do can remain constant.”

Hitting the ground running

WITHIN SIX WEEKS OF RETURNING FROM MILWAUKEE, Van Gorp and the other organizers had 29 CEOs from local companies on board and in May 2010 Well City – Fox Cities was accepted by WELCOA. As of late October there were 52 companies participating representing more than 30,000 employees, and they’re working to recruit more. 

Each participating business has until 2013 to be designated as a Well Workplace. When businesses and organizations agree to participate, they commit to developing and implementing results-driven, best practice employee wellness programs. This means following WELCOA’s “road map to wellness” – seven well-defined benchmarks that guide employers through the process of building a successful wellness program. Those seven benchmarks include: 1) capturing CEO support; 2) creating cohesive wellness teams; 3) collecting data to drive health efforts; 4) carefully crafting an operating plan; 5) choosing appropriate interventions; 6) creating a supportive environment; and 7) carefully evaluating outcomes.

Well City provides business owners, wellness representatives, and human resources personnel with training, resources, and support to develop and deliver worksite wellness programs to help meet the Well Workplace criteria. 

“This is a very data-driven, measurement type tool. It’s not just a bunch of weight loss programs and pedometer challenges. It’s very scientific, and you can show measured improvement by following those seven benchmarks,” said Van Gorp, adding that there are several benefits to employers who participate. “In some cases they may see lower insurance premiums, but overall the benefit that everybody can reap is a more productive workforce. There’s a lot of data out there that shows if people can focus on their work because they’re not distracted by their health or stress, or emotional issues, they’ll be more engaged when they’re at work. It can also positively impact your retention and recruitment efforts. Healthy people want to work with similar people. It can also impact other insurance like disability and worker’s compensation just because people are taking better care of themselves.”

Rollie Stephenson, president/CEO of Faith Technologies in Menasha, is a devout believer in wellness programs. His company has been a crucial driver in development and implementation of the Well City program among Fox Cities’ employers and he was among the first to join. But he’s been building a culture of wellness at Faith for several years. 

“Becoming healthier involves your whole person. It starts with your mind, getting rid of stress and so forth. The second thing is body movement, getting exercise, and number three is nutrition,” Stephenson said. “If we can get people into a healthy mindset and take away from stress we find that everything else works better.”

Wellness courses are offered for all employees and are structured with the goal of promoting a healthy work organization and employee wellness. And at its various offices around the country, Faith Technologies overhauled its food options by replacing many of the “non-healthy” vending machine items with healthier fare at a discounted rate. At each location, oatmeal and tea is provided for free while employees can snack on fruit for 25 cents, as well as other healthy options such as bottled water and Kashi Bars for 50 cents. The company has also implemented healthy guidelines when ordering food for meetings, training sessions and special events. In addition, the company offers health club and recreational sports team reimbursements, as well as money back for participation in activities such as run/walk or bike events.

Faith also offers a variety of incentive programs. “Charging Forward,” for example, is a three-month, online-based program that allows employees to track their exercise activities to earn points towards Faith Technologies apparel. 

Another program, “Healthy Rewards,” is a lifestyle merit plan where employees can track 12 different health-related activities and earn up to $150 in cash per year. And a third incentive program, “Healthy Holidays,” is a contest held during the winter months where teams of four (employees and spouses) weigh-in once a week to win cash prizes. 

During the 2009–10 holiday season, 132 participants across the company dropped more than 650 pounds.

And in 2009, a total of 1,318 Faith employees and 735 spouses completed health risk assessments. For employees, completing an HRA meant saving $142 to $435 on monthly insurance premiums on their medical coverage plan. Likewise, over the last four years, Faith Technologies’ has experienced single-digit increases (approximately 6 percent per year) in health care costs as compared to a double-digit national trend. The Faith Technologies health plan cost in 2009 was $7,913 per employee, compared with an average health plan cost of $10,130 per employee.

Constantly working to improve

“YOU HAVE TO CONSTANTLY LOOK at things and constantly work on improving things. Over time it seems to pay off,” Stephenson said. “It’s a soft science, but you do eventually see results. Plus I think it’s a good morale booster that your employees know you care about them and their health.”

J.J. Keller of Neenah may be the only company in the Fox Valley that has its own WELCOA certification. They’re serving as a mentor to other companies participating in the Well City program and have offered best practices, particularly for those companies that have not had a wellness program before. Part of their mission is holding Learning Circles that are open to other companies. 

Learning Circles are about 90 minutes in length and are held every other month. A speaker usually comes in to discuss one of the WELCOA certification benchmarks. Representatives from participating companies then talk about activities they’ve done, which sparks conversation amongst all the attendees. 

“Most of the companies already have wellness programs and they’re going to start going through the application process for their WELCOA certification. So they want to know what to expect, how their wellness program maybe compares to ours, and what gaps they may need to fill in before they apply,” said Tim Pingle, health and wellness manager at J.J. Keller. “For the new ones that are just beginning, we try to team them up with another company that is either of a similar size or has similar demographics so they can get a wellness program started.” 

“The big thing in trying to encourage a lot of the small companies is a lot of times it’s about keeping wellness on the forefront and on everybody’s mind so that they understand the importance of wellness and that it is part of the company’s culture,” he continued.

A consistent message

VAN GORP SAID they’re also working with area school districts to get them signed up for the Well City program. 
“One of the benefits to the community we’re going to see from that is that parents at their workplace and kids at their school are going to be receiving the same message,” she said. “A lot of the wellness changes that people need to make start at the kitchen table and in the living room. So parents and kids will soon be hearing the same message so they’ll be speaking the same language.”

All these efforts are having a snowball effect. Some of the local restaurants are putting out fresh vegetables and more salad bars in exchange for the businesses involved in Well City to help get the word out. Festival Foods will be attending an upcoming Learning Circle meeting to talk about the New Val system. 

“They’re the first grocery store to put in place a system where all the foods in the store will eventually have a rating of 1 to 100 with 100 being the healthiest,” said Van Gorp. “Even convenience stores are trying to put very fresh and healthier items in their stores, especially the ones near schools so if kids run over there on their lunch hour they can get something that has some nutrition to it. So all these different things that are happening, we’re putting in newsletters and on our Web site so everybody can see it and patronize those businesses that are trying to be a little healthier.”

The enthusiasm also is spreading to others in the New North region. Business leaders in Oshkosh are so motivated from Well City – Milwaukee and Well City – Fox Cities that they are working on trying to get the Well City designation for 2011. 

In February, Oshkosh employers held a CEO breakfast for executives from area businesses to explain the proposal and what’s involved in becoming a Well City and a Well Workplace. According to one of the organizers, Susan Boettcher, human resource manager at Miles Kimball Co., there was great response from the CEOs, so a core group of organizers have been building a strategic plan with the goal of submitting it to the Wellness Council by this November. 

“If they give us the Well City designation for 2011, we’d be looking at having a kick-off in the February timeframe to let companies know what we’re hoping to accomplish, to share with people who’s already on board and then, of course, to try recruiting additional companies. But even if Well City tells us ‘no,’ we’re probably going to keep going because we’ve had enough interest,” said Boettcher.

Cheryl Hentz is a freelance writer from Oshkosh with more than 25 years experience. Her articles have appeared in several newspapers and magazines, both in Wisconsin and elsewhere in the country, and cover a wide range of topics, including business and economic development, minority issues, family pets and animal rights, finance, politics and women’s issues. She can be reached at 920.426.4123 or via email at cheryl.hentz@gmail.com.