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Executives say education, motivation keys to success of company wellness programs

When it comes to keeping an office healthy, whether it's fighting obesity or holding the swine flu at bay, the key is always education.

That's what local human resources directors and other business leaders said at a recent Daily Transcript roundtable. A lot of companies are investing in wellness programs to keep employees healthy, but making sure employees know about the programs -- and why employees might need to use them -- is the only way they'll succeed. Sometimes, companies need to be educated by their employees on what will work.

"I think some of the barriers that we have are getting the employees to understand that they can access these things, it's part of their benefits really," said Jane Campbell, manager of the Center for Health Promotion at Paradise Valley Hospital.

Campbell was referring to the free classes for employees that her center offers, but the sentiments were echoed by officials from other businesses regarding everything from outdoor yoga classes to swine flu vaccines. They said offering options to employees is only the first step; they still need to make sure people understand what's available, and why.

The swine flu vaccine is one example of companies offering a service that requires some education. Some people are nervous about the shots; others just don't think they need them. Campbell said some people are confused that there is a separate vaccine for the H1N1 flu than for the regular flu.

"Its just a flu with a name; it's a seasonal flu with a name," said Dr. Greg Lizer, medical director of health services for Cigna Healthcare of California, one of the sponsors of the roundtable discussion. "That's the biggest challenge we find is this bifurcation of trying to make an artificial construct of the H1N1 as different, when it is the same."

Lizer said there has been something of a struggle to convince people they can fight this flu in the same way, and that the vaccines are safe.

When it comes to broader wellness programs, which encourage people to eat better and exercise, most people know why they should participate, but officials said the trick is to find the right motivation. This can sometimes lead to an education for the company itself from its employees.

The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority has a program called Fitness Focus, which lets employees earn points toward gift certificates if they prove they're eating better or working out. Marci Fredericksen, the program's coordinator, said it's very popular with those who participate, but only about 20 percent of Airport Authority employees participate.

"It obviously doesn't motivate the majority," Fredericksen said.

To improve their numbers, the Airport Authority holds seminars several times a month to talk about nutrition, good shopping habits, cholesterol and other health needs. The Authority also takes suggestions from employees, which have led to onsite yoga classes, a weight loss competition and a gym that's under construction.

Anthem Blue Cross, another roundtable sponsor, has programs in its locations all over the country that include things like group walks. The company's executive leadership takes part, and their involvement has proven effective, according to Judith Mills, wellness consultant and associate program ambassador for the company. People think, "If the boss can do it, so can I."

Vic Buzachero, senior vice president of roundtable sponsor Scripps Health, said his company has 94 percent participation in its wellness program. Incentives include decreases in health care payments for those who are involved. People who are highly engaged barely have to pay for their insurance.

"The great thing that we've noticed -- and we've really been tracking risk profiles over the life of the program -- is a substantial decrease of the high risk population, because that's where your future claims are coming from," Buzachero said. "Our costs per employee per year on our health plan has decreased 8.6 percent."

For some offices, a little competition helps. At Kyocera (NYSE: KYO), employees can sign up to wear a small pedometer device, which tracks their steps electronically. They don't need to fill out forms. They can pick a screen name, and look up how their numbers compare to everyone else's. Muriel Schutte, Kyocera's supervisor of human resources, said that's motivated a lot of people to push themselves.

Larger companies like Anthem sometimes run into cultural issues in its different office sites. For one thing, outdoor walks year round in Wisconsin prove more difficult than in San Diego. But there are other differences, too.

"They want their beer and brats (in Wisconsin)," Lizer said. "You've got to figure out, what is that cultural sensitivity? ... Each individual has their own culture and background, and what makes their decisions and drives their decisions, that's a key to unlock."

While individual organizations are working on their own wellness plans and finding ways to make employees more engaged, they are also keeping a close watch on the health care discussions in Washington. Everyone agreed it was too soon to pass judgment on any plans, but officials said they were getting questions from employees, and hoped to have answers soon.

"We have a very good (health) plan," said Thella Bowens, president and CEO of the Airport Authority. "Employees are afraid of losing the benefits that they have, and some employees are worried about being taxed."

"We certainly are interested in what's going on and looking forward to something that helps control the cost," she continued. "All these programs we've spent the last hour talking about are great in terms of getting employees to a level of fitness and health, but if the cost continues to escalate, it just continues to be something that can't be sustained."

Mara Stradlund, vice president of human resources for HD Supply Facilities Maintenance, said that's something her company is trying to impart to its employees as well: an education about health costs.

"We have a nation right now of employees who are more focused on short-term cost savings than long-term potential costs," Stradlund said. "So we see more employees choosing the lower-cost plans and putting themselves at risk if something catastrophic happens to them."

Officials agreed they want their workers to be happy and healthy, because ultimately that will make employees -- and their companies -- more productive. Sometimes, this comes from eating better and exercising, but it can also come from providing peace of mind.

"The idea of wellness goes well beyond eating healthy and having a healthy lifestyle," said Courtney Morris, director of compensation and benefits at the University of California, San Diego. "For our campus, they allow flexible work schedules, often times they do telecommuting, working from home, to allow that balance."


Thella F. Bowens

President & CEO

San Diego County Regional Airport Authority

Michael J. Brase

Vice President & Medical Director

Anthem Blue Cross (sponsor)

Vic Buzachero

Senior VP

Scripps Health (sponsor)

Jane Campbell

Manager Center for Health Promotion

Paradise Valley Hospital

Marci Fredericksen

Coordinator, Fitness Focus

San Diego County Regional Airport Authority

Wayne Hickey

President & CEO

Roel Construction

Greg Lizer

Medical Director Health Services

Cigna Healthcare of California (sponsor)

Judith Mills

Wellness Consultant & Associate Program Ambassador Anthem Blue Cross (sponsor)

Courtney Morris

Director of Compensation and Benefits

UC San Diego Medical Center

Muriel Schutte

Supervisor of Human Resources


Mara Strandlund

VP, Human Resources

HD Supply Facilities Maintenance

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