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How employees, bottom line benefit from company wellness programs

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Eighteen months ago, Dana Rhoden Broussard was overweight and suffered from low energy, joint pain and high cholesterol. Today she’s 25 pounds lighter, her cholesterol has dropped by 20 points, she feels fit and participates regularly in 5K runs.

But she did not achieve this through popular diet programs or joining a gym.

Broussard, a staff scientist with the molecular biology division in the manufacturing sciences group at Life Technologies’ Austin, Texas office, took advantage of her company’s corporate wellness programs. She does yoga once a week, strength training twice a week and pilates occasionally – all through programs offered at work during her lunch hour, in addition to jogging daily.

When she first made the decision to improve her health, the company’s StayWell program connected her with a counselor by phone.

“We set targets for weight loss and exercise, talked about eating habits, Broussard said. "All those together with group activities and the on-site classes helped me meet my first target for weight loss in a couple months."

The cardio conference room at Life Technologies

Broussard then met all the biometric screening targets set by her employer and was able to enroll in the Health Savings Account, or HSA plan, offered as an incentive for improving one’s health. When employees engage in health improvement activities, Life Technologies deposits fixed amounts of money into an account they can use for current or future health purposes, and take it with them if they leave the company.

“They do incentivize through the screenings and programs. Money does talk,” Broussard said.

Not everyone has jumped on the bandwagon as wholeheartedly as she has, but most of her colleagues participate in at least one wellness program.

Life Technologies has made significant progress in getting its 10,000-plus employees on board since it began offering a health assessment and onsite fitness center four years ago.

Its Carlsbad offices have about 1,500 employees, and there are roughly 5,000 spread across its locations throughout the country.

Pete Leddy, senior vice president of human resources, thinks the company has a very motivated employee population.

“We’re truly living in sync with our purpose, which is living well. I’m impressed with the level of engagement from our employees. We’ve educated them on what drives health care costs, what are the main things to look out for and we give them an array of tools to improve their lives,” Leddy said.

He singled out tobacco cessation as one of the wellness programs that’s made the most impact. Employees volunteer to participate and can bring in family members, too.

There has been a significant decrease in the number of smokers, and when they drop to lower risk categories, they tend to take 25 percent fewer sick days, which is a substantial number.

While the general trend points to a 6 to 10 percent increase in health care costs for companies each year, Leddy said their costs have stayed flat.

A unique experiment Leddy tried that has really caught on is the “cardio conference room” in Carlsbad.

“We have a cutting-edge conference room where they’re pounding the treadmill while attending meetings. The meetings are shorter now,” laughed Leddy.

The office also has work spaces where, instead of desks, employees can opt to walk or stand on treadmills and work on mounted monitors that connect to their computers.

Many of the ideas were initiatives that originated from a magazine article Leddy read, and he discussed it with CEO Greg Lucier, who didn’t need much convincing, being a big health advocate himself.

“How you touch employees emotionally and physically will make the difference in their level of wellness, and when they start to see an improvement in their health, their level of engagement and productivity goes up,” Leddy said. “But more important than that is how they feel about themselves.”

Convincing employees to take wellness programs seriously requires serious commitment and communication from the top, so Leddy’s team began making changes across the board. Vending machines that stocked junk food now offer healthy options, and snacks and drinks provided at meetings are now low in salt and sugar.

Leddy’s human resources team uses the company’s wellness programs as an incentive and a perk during recruitment.

Before rolling out any initiative, it conducted focus groups and one-on-one interviews to research employee needs and used that feedback to design the programs.

Stress is known to be a big driver of higher cholesterol, glucose and blood pressure levels, so the company offers on-site stress management and meditation classes. For anyone going through a rough time, counseling or assistance is a phone call away.

“This is not the touchy-feely stuff, it really makes an impact,” Leddy emphasizes.

The company also offers genetic screening, where employees obtain a test kit from an online portal, do a swab and send it back.

They receive a detailed report about diseases they could be susceptible to, such as Alzheimer’s or diabetes, and the environmental factors that can affect their chances of getting it. They can then work with a health coach who shows them how to manage their health and avoid the risks.

“I’ve done this and it was very revealing for me, working in a genetic company,” Leddy said.

“Global healthcare costs are about $4.5 trillion, with U.S. costs (accounting for) half that amount. We believe you can take a big bite out of that and our numbers truly show this, if you take a proactive approach to wellness,” Leddy said.

Ninety two percent of eligible employees have enrolled in the HSA program. The skeptics who refrain from taking advantage of wellness initiatives are prodded with carrot and stick methods.

“You may end up paying a higher deductible in our medical plan if you don’t engage, but if you do, then you and your family pay lower deductibles and have better health plans,” Leddy said.

Whether it’s a stick or carrot, employees seem to respond most to financial incentives, be they cash, lower premiums or rich plan design, according to Lambert Hsu, an employee benefits expert with BenefitPro Insurance Services.

Although all employees benefit from a wellness program, not all employers can expect to realize a return on investment Hsu cautioned, since it takes three to five years for such programs to show positive impact -- so companies with high turnover may not reap the payoff.

Broussard thinks the success of her company’s programs may have to do with its knowing what employees want and following through with it.

“There’s a soft ball team, a fun run, lunch time activities," she said.

"Maybe you just want to reduce stress, and there’s something for you. If you want to join a sport, they have something for you too.”





Nagappan is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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Life Technologies

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5791 Van Allen Way
Carlsbad, CA 92008

Life Technologies Executive(s):

Bernd Brust

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