The Wellness Movement
January 1, 2006
The Wellness Movement
By Andy Hanacek,
Although the cost of health care is on the rise, meat processors can take steps to reduce the burden for themselves and their employees.
Health care. It has been the talk of politicians, the scourge of employees and businesses, and the puzzle few employees believe they can assemble.
Health care remains one of the most important concerns in the minds of employers and employees alike, as costs continue to rise and the reports on the overall health of Americans seem to only get worse.
Stress on the pocketbooks of the working public has never been greater, says Karen M. Gustin, LLIF, vice president-group marketing and managed care for Ameritas Group Dental and Eye Care in Lincoln, NE.
“Employees have always expected high coverage with little out-of-pocket expense from health-care benefits,” she explains. “That is no longer the case.”
Premiums, she adds, are shifting to the responsibility of the employees, and businesses continue to search for ways to ease the burden on their workforce. That’s where wellness education comes into play.
Processors can effectively save money by incorporating wellness education/monitoring programs into their workplace, improving the overall health of the workforce and helping to minimize the employees’ out-of-pocket expenses.
Bar-S Foods provides a perfect example of a company that has health and wellness figured out. From the company’s daily “Flex and Stretch” program to its “Fit to Win” program, Bar-S takes a proactive stance in the well-being and fitness of its employees. And, according to Marty Thompson, division vice president, human resources for the company, enthusiasm for the program is high, with 90 percent of the sales and corporate employees and 75 percent of the operations employees throughout the entire company participating in the entire program, which is completely optional.
Yet, such enthusiasm wasn’t born overnight. Thompson adds that the company had to start out small and build the program over time.
“It started out as a pilot program, and we even started it in just one department,” he says. “Pretty soon after doing that for a couple of weeks, other departments looked and said, ‘Hey, why can’t we do that?’
“So, start small, build the enthusiasm and let it spread, versus forcing it on people. That’s really how we got the whole thing going.”
Gustin agrees that forcing the program on employees is not ideal, given the sensitive nature of the topic for some employees.
“Change is not easy for anyone, especially when it comes to wellness issues,” she explains. “It’s even more difficult to hear it from a third party like your employer. Easing into wellness programs is something many employers do, but employees have to feel a reward from change, like feeling healthier.
“A wellness program cannot just list reductions in health benefits and penalties if wellness isn’t achieved,” she continues. “It must be packaged with perks, education, etc. to sell employees on why it’s good for them.”
Gustin further explains that each employer must tailor its expectations of participation in a health and wellness program to the type of employees that the company has.
“Companies that see high turnover in their employee base may not see wellness affect their premium costs as much as those that have long-tenured employees,” she adds. “Younger employee bases may be more apt to accept wellness programs with penalties [for not meeting goals] because their expectations are not like those of older populations. Just as in any benefit program, the employer must understand the psychology of their population and implement what will effectively achieve their overall goal.”
Thompson says there are two other things that can help build momentum for the program once it is introduced. First, activities, such as health assessments or checkups, must be convenient for employees to fully participate.
“If you’re running assessments, try to do that after work or on lunchtime or try to integrate it into the workplace,” he says. “The hard part is, finding a way to do it, not just the assessments but the communication and such, that is convenient and easy for the employees to slide into.”
Second, if the program is optional and management would like to see top turnout, then management must buy into it and demonstrate that. At Bar-S, management participates just like everyone else.
“What the ‘Flex and Stretch’ in the morning does is let our people know that we’re serious about it,” Thompson says. “We’ll pay you to do it, but we want you understand that fitness, including stretching and preparing yourself for work is important to the company. If you don’t walk the walk, the people don’t care. If they don’t see the management of the company in the office doing the same thing, it won’t work.”
The program at Bar-S, according to Thompson, allowed the company to raise premiums only once in approximately eight years, even though costs for the company have risen in the same time period. The group medical cost per employee per year at Bar-S is 40 percent below the national average, he says.
More importantly and more rewarding, however, are the intangible rewards of touching the lives of each employee by helping them improve their quality of life. The program at Bar-S has helped employees take control of their own health and wellness, and their personal safety as well.
“We can help people if we identify [high] blood pressure, and a person gets a checkup and finds out they have a heart problem and have a bypass, for example. That has happened on a couple of occasions,” Thompson says. “We’ve identified people with vision problems that have gotten glasses, and that helped from a safety standpoint.”
According to Gustin, the education of employees on topics like dental and optical health can go a long way to making the workplace safer and more efficient, while saving employees dollars upon dollars in costs for treatment. She says that eye health problems are the second most prevalent health concern in the United States, affecting more than 120 million people, and that according to the National Eye Institute, by 2020, approximately 5.5 million Americans will experience blindness or low vision.
“Research indicates that many new cases of blindness are curable or preventable through detection and treatment, which could result in an estimated annual medical savings of more than $1 billion,” Gustin concludes.
If processors put forth the patience to build an educationally based health and wellness program, the possibilities are endless and the rewards are high for both employer and employee. NP