Working out helps the workplace: Sources of savings

Kelli Kolsrud walks the walk. A contributor to a 500-page research report on wellness programs, Kolsrud can personally attest to the benefits of being well.

"I'm really, really glad that we can do this," Kolsrud said during lunchtime laps around the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, where she's a senior information specialist.

Most workdays, she slips into her sneakers and joins up to 68 of her co-workers as they log their mileage around the building, which is set in a wooded lot. To encourage fitness, the International Foundation is offering $150 for each employee completing 420 laps - 168 miles - by November.

"For me, it does show that the employer cares whether I'm healthy or not," Kolsrud said. "I appreciate that it's kind of a nudge for me to get out there and do these things."

The International Foundation report, based on surveys from 464 employers in the United States and Canada, found that 62 percent of the organizations had wellness programs for their workers. Another 15 percent said they intended to offer such plans.

When asked to identify the perceived benefits of their initiatives, employers cited improved employee health, higher morale, lower medical claims, reduced absenteeism, increased productivity and decreased turnover.

But 41 percent of the employers surveyed said they didn't know how wellness plans benefited their organizations. And 87 percent said they did not know what sort of return on investment their programs generated.

Those findings suggest that many employers offer wellness benefits either out of altruism or on blind faith that there is a payoff.

The danger, says Kolsrud, is that without evidence of an investment return, employers are less likely to commit to wellness in the long run.

"They might not continue it if they don't take the time to assess what the benefits are and what the return on investment is. I do think that's really important," Kolsrud said. "If money becomes tight in an organization, it's the programs that can prove their (return on investment) that get to stay. So it's really a business decision to have a wellness program because you can have a substantial return on investment from having one."

Midwest power company We Energies has figured returns ranging from $1.80 and $2.38 for every $1 it puts into employee wellness, based on cost savings from medical, drug and worker's compensation expenses, as well as reduced absenteeism.

And that's a conservative estimate, says Cindy Schaefer, manager of health promotion for the utility.

"We believe that keeping our employees well and healthy and trying to support that is the right thing to do," Schaefer said, "because we get the productivity. We get the morale. We get the softer side of things, in addition to the value that we see in a quantifiable way."

Escalating health care costs motivated We Energies a decade ago to launch health education and promotion initiatives at work, Schaefer said.

For similar reasons, Robert W. Baird & Co. stepped up its wellness efforts a year ago, including screenings and assessments to help employees - and their partners - identify and address potential health risks. A year ago, 95 percent of Baird's 2,200 employees participated in the assessments, up from 40 percent the year before.

"We are thinking positive and fully expect that we will see return on our investment," said Lori Lorenz, Baird's human resources director. "And if we don't, then I think we need to re-examine some of our efforts in the wellness area to see what we can to do keep improving it, because we believe there is a huge piece of our health care dollar that can be controlled through wellness efforts."

Brookfield-based technology services company Fiserv Inc., in the third year of its wellness drive, is seeing positive trends in employee nutrition, physical activity and tobacco use, according to Linda Schuessler, the company's wellness promotion manager.

Two years ago, 31 percent of Fiserv's employees had potential risks tied to inactivity. This year, it dropped to 25 percent.

Earlier this month, for the second year in a row, the National Business Group on Health named Fiserv among 41 "Best Employers for Healthy Lifestyles." Despite these early accomplishments, Fiserv needs to track the impact of its wellness initiatives, Schuessler said.

"In the corporate world, you always want to measure results," Schuessler said. "It's very gratifying, too, to see that there are changes, that people are reacting in a very positive way, and that eventually it does mean that we are doing the right thing."

After years of health care cost hikes, more employers are looking to wellness for relief.

"No question that high health care costs have been driving the increased interest in worksite health promotion," said Deborah Seyler, executive director of the Wellness Council of Wisconsin.

"It really comes down to the fact that employers, over many years now, have really done a lot of the other things on the list. They have renegotiated with providers. They have reworked their benefits plans. They have co-payments and deductibles and incentives built in. And so they've done all of those things," Seyler said. "And now I think they're down to almost the last thing on the list - which maybe should have been the first thing on the list - health promotion."

She added, "There's a lot of research that indicates that anywhere from 50 to 70 percent of health care costs are directly related to lifestyle. Which is the good news and the bad news, because it's preventable. I think it's the pot of gold that's been pretty much untapped."