BY LORRAINE MIRABELLA
THE BALTIMORE SUN/MCT
Janis Smith feels a lot healthier — and more confident — since shedding 65 pounds in six months, and that has helped in her job leading employee training for 1st Mariner Bank.
“Being in front of a classroom of people … I don’t feel like everyone is looking at me, they’re listening to what I’m saying versus what I look like,” said Smith, 55, a vice president and director for the Baltimore-based bank. “I just have a lot more energy. I have more stamina. I feel like I have a clearer mind.”
Smith’s transformation in 2012 prompted her bosses to offer the weight-loss program she used, Medifast, as a corporate wellness program. Since the launch last April, dozens of bank employees have lost more than a combined 700 pounds. As a manager, Smith believes participation has paid off in improved morale, increased energy and less sick time.
As businesses look for ways to blunt the impact of rising health costs, many are investing more in workplace wellness — especially initiatives that help prevent chronic diseases down the road. Workers compete to walk the most steps, lose the most weight and eat the most fruits and vegetables.
Companies offer flu clinics and health screenings, exercise classes and nutrition guidance, healthy living newsletters and seminars.
Wellness programs have been around in various forms for years, in place at about half of employers with 50 or more workers, according to nonprofit research group RAND Corp. But such programs are getting renewed attention amid health care reform, with the Affordable Care Act promoting wellness programs to lower costs.
“Employers have become more concerned about costs and are looking at additional ways to reduce spending,” said Soeren Mattke, senior scientist and managing director of RAND’s health advisory services.
“Many have raised co-payments, and some have introduced more narrow network plans or high-deductible plans to reduce costs. The sense among the employer community is that’s as far as we can go with streamlining the health coverage benefits.
“Now they have to see if they can go to the root of the problem and address the underlying drivers of spending, which is chronic disease.”
Preventive efforts worthwhile
A RAND study that examined a PepsiCo wellness program found that efforts to help workers manage chronic illnesses saved $3.78 in health care costs for every dollar invested. But the study found lifestyle-management programs failed to offer returns greater than the costs.
Employers say they believe preventive efforts are worthwhile, with programs helping to attract and retain workers as well as keep them more engaged and productive.
Workers in better health stay at their jobs longer and are absent less, said Vanessa Hedgebeth-Bell, Mid-Atlantic human resources manager for M&T Bank, which hopes to expand wellness offerings this year.
“The return is a more engaged workforce, a happier workforce,” Hedgebeth-Bell said.
“We want them to have a better personal life and professional life, and it’s hard to do that when you don’t feel well.”
The banking company hands out “wellness” wall calendars each year with health tips.
It sponsors flu clinics each fall. And each spring, employees are invited to form five-member teams to compete in walking and fruit- and vegetable-eating competitions. Employees track the number of cups of fruit and vegetables they consume and wear bank-supplied pedometers to track steps. Winning teams get fruit baskets at the end of each week.
Last year 800 employees participated, walking more than 32 million steps and eating more than 165,000 cups of fruits and vegetables, Hedgebeth-Bell said.
Peggy Miller, a relationship liaison in the business banking department, headed a team a few years ago and said employees in the group offered one another moral support, though they chose not to compete against others in the company. They pooled money and bought fruit and vegetables to eat at the office each day.
“Every one of us commented on how much better we felt not eating chips and snacks throughout the day,” Miller said. “Everyone appreciated having the fresh options available to them.”