Companies Find Inexpensive Ways to Promote Wellness

By E.B. Solomont

Mar. 8, 2009

Seeking a low-cost way to boost physical activity among employees, the Health and Hospitals Corporation of Marion County, Indiana, last year devised a virtual challenge: A six-month “walk” from Indianapolis to the summit of Pike’s Peak in Colorado—a distance of 1,115 miles or more than 2 million steps.

The competition challenged its 800 employees to count the number of steps they took daily and apply them to the total distance of the race. The challenge was divided into eight segments, with virtual checkpoints along the way. At the end, participants were entered into a raffle to win a gift certificate to a local sporting goods store.

A total of 128 workers started the race, with 18 completing the entire distance. The total cost of the challenge was $350.

“We wanted something that would encourage people basically to be active,” says Andy Scott, the human resources manager for the corporation, a quasi-governmental agency that serves as the public health department in Indianapolis. Scott says the $350 was spent on three gift certificates worth $200, $100 and $50. “We didn’t have much of a budget at all so we had to do this as economically as we could,” he says.

Indeed, the corporation is one of a growing number of employers who are embracing low-cost wellness programs, experts say. Operating in a tough economic climate, employers increasingly are seeking alternatives to costly programs, which are facing increased scrutiny because the return on investment can be hard to define.

“Management doesn’t have as much money to do as much as they did before,” says Ralph Colao, a consultant at Mercer’s health and benefits business.

To be sure, employers are not likely to drop wellness programs altogether given the rising cost of health care. “Even though the company can’t afford a whole lot, they can’t afford higher health care costs, either,” Colao says.

Instead, many employers are playing up existing benefits offered through their health insurance plans. In place of biometric screening, for example, companies may encourage employees to go for an annual physical. Colao says one company promoted a 24-hour nurse hot line, an existing benefit that few employees knew about or used. “It’s part of what they’re already paying for,” he says.

At the same time, campaigns that promote physical activity or healthier eating are on the upswing, Colao says. “More employers want to do wellness, but they don’t have a large budget to do it in,” he says.

At Alverno College, a Catholic women’s college in Wisconsin with 800 employees, there is no money budgeted specifically for wellness programs. “We have a group of committees, and employees get together and talk about what do people want, what do we need, and how can we get this done,” says Sharon Wilcox, Alverno’s HR director.

In the past few years, a group of nutrition-minded employees lobbied for healthier food options in the school cafeteria. Now, every other Wednesday is called “Wellness Wednesday” and the college’s caterer serves healthier options, with less fried food. There are vegetarian choices every day.

The college has spearheaded its own initiatives too. In 2007, Alverno became a smoke-free campus. “That was no budget, but it sends a message,” Wilcox says.

But Alverno is willing to spend some money on wellness. Last year, the college paid for free health-risk assessments for benefit-eligible employees, or nearly 500 faculty and staff. Seventy employees participated, at a cost of $4,060 to the college, but Wilcox says that it’s too soon to see a return on the investment. This year, the school’s health insurance administrator will pick up the tab for the personalized health assessments, and Wilcox anticipates participation to jump by 50 percent.

“You don’t need to spend a lot of money on these programs,” says Dan Dauphinee, the operations manager at Northeastern Log Homes, a manufacturer of log homes based in Kenduskeag, Maine. Several years ago, Northeastern Log designated a stretch of its property as a walking trail for its 100 employees, who are encouraged to exercise during their breaks. The company also offers fruits and vegetables in its snack room for 30 cents apiece.

But Northeastern Log continues to shoulder the cost of other wellness programs, including a discount on health insurance for employees who participate in wellness programs. Programs range from lectures on nutrition to 12-week walking challenges. Workers on a family plan, who pay $61.35 a week for health insurance, can get $30 off their weekly bill for participating in at least five programs a year.

“When you look at a culture that has healthy, happy employees and your health insurance costs are not going up, that’s the justification,” Dauphinee says.

But Scott, of the Health and Hospitals Corporation, says a large price tag simply was not an option. Instead, the corporation gave away T-shirts to participants who completed the first segment of the Pike’s Peak Challenge. A local gym donated one-year memberships to everyone who completed the challenge.

Despite its lean finances, Scott says the corporation is responding to the obesity epidemic in Indiana and that it expects to sponsor fitness challenges in the future. “Particularly since we are the public health organization [in Indiana],” he says, “it made sense to try to set an example that our folks are out doing something and being active.”

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