It's working out in the workplace

Wellness: Companies are implementing programs to help employees be more healthy.

August 10, 2005|By Amy Rosewater | Amy Rosewater,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Craig Burris likes to play basketball and lift weights a few days a week. Sometimes he'll work out at a gym near his home, the Bel Air Athletic Club, which he pays for out of his own pocket. But if he wants to, he can work out for free at the Merritt Athletic Club in Canton, just about a four-minute drive from his office at SmartCEO magazine in the Can Company.

It's just one of the perks of his job.

And it's not just because he's the publisher.

Burris and all 18 of his colleagues are members of the Merritt Athletic Club. The company covers the enrollment fee for all of its employees.

"It's something that I know is the right thing for us to do," Burris said.

More companies are implementing programs designed to improve corporate wellness. With health care costs skyrocketing and obesity super-sizing the nation, companies are trying to help employees tackle a variety of problems - mainly losing weight, stopping smoking and coping with stress. The idea is that if a company has a healthier work force, then its productivity and financial health will improve.

And, perhaps, as some studies suggest, health care costs might decrease.

Companies and their employees are trying to find solutions to overall health - not just access to a treadmill. So fitness clubs are doing more than offering employee discounts - they are packaging wellness programs to include health seminars and blood pressure screenings.

"People think of corporate wellness and their first thought is, `Oh, do I get a discount to a gym?' " said Steve Yapsuga, Merritt's director of corporate sales. "I say, `No. It's so much more. It's a holistic approach to health.' "

According to a recent nationwide study, New York-based Deloitte Consulting found that 62 percent of 365 large companies operate some form of corporate wellness program.

It's a trend that is building in Baltimore. Area companies, large and small, are discovering ways to improve workplace health. Some companies have built on-site fitness centers. Others started noon-hour walking clubs.

"Whether you've got eight employees or 8,000, you still have health and wellness needs that affect productivity," said Tim Rhode, co-owner of the Maryland Athletic Club and Wellness Center in Timonium. "But there's not one button that everyone is pressing. Every company is doing this in different ways.

"I've been in this business now for about 20 years. And when I started, most companies did memberships as recreational perks for their employees. They're seeing it now as a necessity."

Some companies, like CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, work with Merritt personal trainers at its on-site gyms. CareFirst employees can do everything from enroll in yoga and pilates classes to charting weight loss online.

PHH Corp., the second-largest commercial fleet management company in North America, also has a fitness center. PHH, which has about 1,000 employees and has been at its offices in Sparks for about a year and a half, boasts a 1,150-square-foot gym.

Among the offerings are weight-loss and smoking cessation programs. This past year, 30 employees enrolled in the smoking cessation program, and 15 have kicked the habit. The company also has a massage therapist come by the offices three times a month and employees can sign up for 15-minute sessions.

McCormick & Co., the Hunt Valley spice maker, also has created a broad wellness program, which includes offering nearly 100 health-related lectures a year, blood pressure and cholesterol screenings and weight-loss programs. Holly Bell, McCormick's manager of occupational health services, said about 185 employees have signed up for a "Walk to the Sea" program which measures how many steps each employee makes.

Some companies implement corporate wellness programs simply because the chief executive officer is a fitness buff and wants the employees to follow suit. Sometimes it's an offshoot of workplace issues that need to be resolved.

A couple of years ago, the Pepsi Bottling Group decided to create an on-site health and wellness center at its Baltimore plant on Union Avenue. Initially, the idea was to help control occupational injuries, said Tracy Mosca, a project manager in the risk management department.

Pepsi decided to hire physician assistants and nurse practitioners from the Johns Hopkins Hospital so employees could be treated at the plant. Because the plant operates on nearly a 24-hour clock, it needed help on site.

Now workers can be treated at the center for everything from allergic reactions to managing diabetes. The centers also provide cholesterol and blood pressure screenings at no cost to the employees. And there is no struggle to get a last-minute appointment at a doctor's office, nor does an employee have to miss much work time.

Although the company is in the process of quantifying the benefits of its wellness centers, Mosca said it's apparent that they're successful. What started in Baltimore is now available at eight Pepsi bottling plants around the country.

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