In one week, Mather LifeWays, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to enhancing the lives of older adults with locations in Illinois and Arizona, will initiate the second phase of an ambitious wellness program aimed at improving the health and well-being of its more than 450 employees. Reed Engel, director of wellness strategies at Mather LifeWays, believes that health and wellness coaching has the potential to positively impact employees’ wellness. Further, he contends that Mather LifeWays’ commitment to employees’ health will make the organization more attractive to future job applicants and appeal to its client base: seniors who desire a healthy, active lifestyle during retirement. In short, the notion of wellness will become synonymous with Mather LifeWays’ customers, residents, and its staff.

Considering the dramatic rise in health care costs in recent years and business owners’ desire to increase their bottom line (or keep it in the black) by strengthening their employees’ productivity and morale, promoting wellness makes sense. The term wellness was coined in the 1950s by Halbert Dunn, the first director of the National Office for Health Statistics. His idea was to unite a human’s mind, body, and spirit in any environment – including the workplace. In the 1970s, Bill Hettler, a physician who co-founded the National Wellness Institute, expanded this notion into six dimensions that reflected a holistic approach (Figure 1).

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The latest contributor to the idea of “Whole-Person Wellness” was Jan Montague, of Montague, Eippert & Associates. Montague surmised that the six dimensions, as established by Hettler, were not separate pieces but instead interconnected and related to each other (Figure 2).

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For instance, a company that offers its employees access to continuing education classes will benefit the employee intellectually, as well as socially and vocationally.

A look at Mather LifeWays’ first wellness initiative, the 10,000 Steps� program, launched in late 2005, also gives credence to Montague’s expanded notion of wellness. Engel first conducted a survey of Mather LifeWays’ employees and reviewed the top five types of modifiable health claims filed in the previous year. Based on his findings, he identified a program that would be universally accessible to employees at all of Mather LifeWays’ locations: a walking program that would record the number of steps employees took at work, at home, while running errands, and during nightly and weekend excursions. Additional activities, such as gardening or playing tennis, could be converted to steps and added to the total.

Employees could set their own goals for the number of steps they aspired to take in an eight-week timeframe – not necessarily the number indicated in the program’s title. At the end of the eight weeks, 40 percent of employees had walked, and the grand prize winner received a year’s membership at a local health club. Yet, all employees were winners, notes Engel: participants in the program improved their exercise and eating habits and exhibited more camaraderie at work.

From a management perspective, wellness programs can decrease absenteeism, reduce medical claims costs, and improve employee recruitment and retention, notes Stephanie Sullivan, an HR director who has worked with Tender Mercies, a housing and services provider for the homeless. She further suggests that for maximum impact, these programs should focus on increasing awareness of wellness issues (information), supporting health management (personal change), and promoting healthy work climates (organizational support).

And companies have been paying attention, including DuPont, General Mills, and Johnson & Johnson. The latter company reported that while it spends $4.5 million each year on comprehensive preventative health care programs, its medical bills would top out at an estimated $13 million were these programs not made available to its 116,000 employees.

Companies with smaller budgets and far fewer employees have also started to incorporate wellness programs. In October 2004, the American Management Association surveyed both its members and customers at 211 companies, finding that 45 percent of companies offered discounts or corporate memberships to health clubs for their employees. Additionally, 56 percent of respondents said their organizations participate in community- or corporate-sponsored athletic activities such as bowling leagues and fundraiser walk/runs. Sixty-nine percent said that meal selections offered in their cafeterias or sold to employees included fruits, vegetables, and low-fat entrees.

Implementing one or more wellness programs doesn’t have to break the bank. In fact, one cost-conscious way to begin is to conduct an interest assessment of all employees. This entails creating a simple survey or questionnaire that asks what wellness-based programs or initiatives employees would be interested in learning about and/or attending. A second approach would be to carry out a health risk appraisal, which can be done internally or at a moderate cost via a third-party consultant. This typically involves a survey of employees’ current health status, including factors such as diet, exercise, and lifestyle choices like smoking and alcohol consumption. For maximum effectiveness, notes Engel, the survey could range from 20-30 minutes in length. Incentives, like the $25 gift cards used at Mather LifeWays, promote even greater participation.

A third approach, which Engel found helpful, is reviewing health care costs and claims filed with the employer’s health care insurer or provider, which provide regular, aggregate data. If an employer sees that prescriptions and occasional doctor visits result from cold and flu viruses during the winter, it may want to consider soliciting a health care professional to provide optional flu shots for employees.

The support of an organization’s leadership is critical to implementing wellness programs. Engel says that it sometimes takes a health-related incident (such as a heart attack) for top executives of a company to take notice of the benefits wellness programming can offer the company at large. Luckily for Mather LifeWays, president and CEO Mary Leary has always been a wellness proponent, notes Engel.

Mather LifeWays’ second wellness initiative, the health and wellness coaching program, offers one-on-one advice and counseling in five health modules: nutrition and weight management; smoking cessation; fitness and exercise; pre- and post-natal health; and stress management/work-life balance. Participating employees are given a toll-free phone number to connect confidentially to a professional who is trained in these five areas. These coaches can either assist the employees directly or provide contact information for up to three local providers for additional assistance.

After a high employee response to Mather LifeWays’ first wellness program, Engel believes that with the second program the company stands to gain an even healthier, more focused and energized workforce. As a result, the employees also win by becoming aware of unhealthy habits and being empowered to improve their lifestyle.