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Get well soon: Healthy workers mean a healthy business

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As an employer, how would you rather your employees spend their lunch hour: smoking a cigarette after having a fatty meal, or taking a brisk walk after a healthy lunch?

Employers are beginning to understand what medical science has known for years, that healthier lifestyle choices lead to better overall health. As a result, an emerging trend is gaining momentum: work wellness programs.

More and more employers are looking to wellness programs to help their work force become healthier and more productive. Aside from the more obvious benefits of reducing absenteeism and improving worker productivity, a wellness program can help strengthen your company's ability to attract, retain and motivate the best talent to grow your organization.

Chuck Cotter

What's more, a healthier work force can mean improved health insurance costs. It's a fresh alternative to limiting benefits, increasing employee cost sharing and some of the other short-term measures employers have taken in recent years to combat escalating health care trends.

The key to making your wellness program really work and to get a good return on your wellness investment is significant employee participation -- and that's the challenge. While motivating employees to make positive lifestyle changes can be difficult, the need for such changes has never been greater.

The National Bureau of Economic Research estimates overweight and obese people incur up to several hundred more in annual medical bills than individuals maintaining a healthy weight. According to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, companies save an estimated $1,600 a year in excess medical expenses for every employee who stops smoking. When an employer implements a fitness program, those who exercised had $553 lower health care costs per person compared to those who did not exercise, according to a report in the Journal of Occupational Medicine.

A primary goal of a good wellness program is to reach those employees at highest risk who would benefit most from a change in their daily routines. These employees are usually prone to such health conditions as heart disease, diabetes and high cholesterol.

So how can employers engage and motivate their employees?

¥ Money talks: Some employers have implemented financial incentives to encourage participation in the wellness program.

¥ Communication is key: Good communication materials and employee meetings can help generate employee enthusiasm for the program.

¥ Tools that help: A program may include nutrition plans, personalized coaching, health assessments, on-site fitness activities and more.

¥ Coordinate to motivate: An outside wellness coordinator can help structure a program appropriate to an employer's company size, budget and its wellness goals; a coordinator can also provide ongoing assessments of the program's success.

Barney & Barney has recently implemented its own wellness program called "Be 365 -- Formula for a Healthy Life."

As San Diego's largest employee benefits insurance broker, Barney & Barney has long been sensitive to the need for improving work force wellness as a strategy to contain health care costs. The "Be 365" program provides a wellness coordinator to help assess an employer's wellness needs, then develop a custom program to meet those goals.

The program provides coaching, financial incentives, rewards and action plans to put employees on the right path to good health. We know that these things can increase participation because our company took its own wellness participation from less than 10 percent participation to more than 60 percent participation in its first year.

Now that's healthy participation.

Cotter is principal of Barney & Barney.

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