Companies promote wellness


March 23, 1992|By Ellen Forman | Ellen Forman,Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- It isn't always easy for Jo Baxter to squeeze exercise into her 12- or 14-hour workdays.

But Ms. Baxter, vice president of marketing and public relations at Baptist Hospital in Dade County, manages to do it four or five days a week. She just crosses the parking lot and she's at the company gym, called Room for Improvement. The proximity makes it easier to work time on the treadmill into a schedule that can go from 7:30 a.m. until 10 at night.

"Getting into a regular exercise habit is a real stress reducer for me, and I'm doing something good for myself," Ms. Baxter said.

"It's a wonderful opportunity. There's a lot of people I get to see in the fitness room. We encourage each other."

In many workplaces, the three-martini lunch has been replaced by the salad bar.

As health-care costs rage out of control, companies are seeking ways to keep employees' medical bills down. The result: wellness, a proactive approach to keeping them healthy.

More than two-thirds of U.S. businesses with 50 or more employees have some form of health promotion program, according to the Wellness Councils of America, an umbrella group of community councils. Stop-smoking classes, back care programs, stress management and health risk appraisals are the most popular.

In a survey of corporate wellness programs by benefits consultant Foster Higgins, 29 percent of responding employers said they offer voluntary physicals as part of wellness programs. In addition, 43 percent offer screening tests, 29 percent offer immunizations, 21 percent offer a fitness center, 20 percent subsidize the cost of a fitness or health club, 65 percent offer a smoke-free workplace, and 3 percent offer health insurance rate incentives for healthy lifestyles.

"Eating granola bars and wearing spandex suits, that's not what it's about," said Rosalie Kenney, director of the Wellness Council of South Florida. "We get them to think about keeping well, not just addressing the problem when someone's sick.

The first wave of wellness programs leaned toward gym privileges and health lectures, Ms. Kenney said. Tough times changed that quickly. Now, wellness directors work directly on cost containment with worker's compensation and medical benefits departments.

"They've tried managed care, they've tried utilization reviews, and they've tried cost-shifting," said Leigh Williams, a consultant at Hewitt Associates, a benefit firm. "They've tried a lot of different things, and a lot of employers are saying, 'This isn't enough, what else can I do?' This is about to become the 'what else.' "

The Baptist Hospital company gym, priced at $25 for six months, is one of a handful of wellness programs the hospital put in place to reduce injuries, lower stress, and enhance the health of its work force.

"It's not just the exercise. It's the awareness that they're about to use their body, the attention they pay," said Tom Moore, director of employee health and fitness.

Memorial Hospital in Hollywood, Fla., built a fitness center for use by employees, cardiac patients and the community at large. Employees pay $210 a year for an individual or $300 for a family. The center features 82 types of fitness machines, stretching, cardiovascular, aerobics, step and prenatal classes. Staff members are exercise physiologists and nurses who work with participants on a fitness plan. About 500 employees and 400 community members belong to the center, which will relocate to new quarters this year.

Many of the screening and education programs, relatively low cost and easy to implement, have become popular programs.

The March of Dimes' Babies and You prenatal program goes right into the workplace, usually during lunchtime, and can be requested by any size company.

"A lot of women don't have the time and energy to take a class after work," said Mary Faquir, community services director for the March of Dimes South Florida chapter.

The series of classes include childbirth after 35, prenatal exercise and nutrition. Participants can take one or several classes. March of Dimes will also provide informational literature and awareness materials without the classes, Ms. Faquir said. Some companies, including American Express, adapt the program for in-house use and invite both husbands and wives to attend Saturday classes.

How much money does a wellness program cost? How much can it save? That's difficult to say. A fully equipped gym won't do much if no one uses it. On the other hand, some companies have created successful walking programs by merely putting up a chart and painting a white line around the building.

Programs such as the March of Dimes' Babies and You lectures on prenatal care are free of charge to both employees and employers. If even one premature birth is prevented, it could mean a savings of tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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