Over the past few years our industry has seen a burgeoning trend in employee benefits programs: the launching of healthy-living initiatives. While the details of these plans vary from one employer to another, they all share the same three-pronged purpose: encouraging workers to adopt behavior patterns that improve their health and well-being, while enabling the company to better manage rising health care costs and increase productivity. I asked some of CTHRA’s members to fill us in on healthy-living efforts in their companies. Based on their responses, it’s been a win-win situation for all concerned.

Individual programs offer benefits ranging from healthy food options in vending machines and cafeterias to professionally staffed facilities that provide full on-site medical care. A superstar in this regard is ESPN’s state-of-the-art Employee Wellness Center and gymnasium at its Bristol, Conn., headquarters. The 13,500-square foot facility houses a nine-member Wellness & Services Group that oversees all aspects of employee well-being. 

They’ve got their hands full with a menu of offerings that, said Paul Richardson, SVP of HR for ESPN Inc. and chief diversity officer for The Walt Disney Co., includes “on-site fitness assessments, personal training, group exercise, massage therapy, 1:1 nutrition consultation, occupational nursing services, intramural programs, biometric screenings, a Facebook community,” and much more. “In addition,” Richardson continued, “we offer Work/Life services, onsite daycare, child and elder backup care, flexible work arrangements, job sharing and on-site Employee Assistance Services (EAP) counseling.”

Along with ongoing counseling and medical care, many companies sponsor a variety of periodic programs, promotions and activities. Turner Broadcasting System leverages its internal wellness brand, “It’s Your Health. Care,” to promote its myriad of wellness offerings, including its onsite wellness center, with seasonal wellness initiatives throughout the year in all work locations. The lineup included a month-long focus on living a heart-healthy lifestyle by eating right, exercising and reducing heart disease risk. Said Turner’s director of employee programs, Alisha Penick, “We held on-site exercise challenges, gave away health-related products and offered free blood pressure and cholesterol screenings.”

Another monthly promotion that proved a big favorite with Turner’s employees was a “Laugh It Off” campaign that focused on stress awareness, with a particular emphasis on how to relieve stress with humor. Penick said, “We offered free onsite chair massages, laughter yoga classes, confidential EAP onsite counseling sessions and a performance from a local improv theater.” 

Around the World in 16 Weeks

One of the most ambitious health and well-being initiatives was Discovery Communications’ Global Corporate Challenge, held over a four-month period in 2011. Eric Hawkins, Discovery’s SVP of HR, explained the premise: “Employees formed teams of seven and spent the next sixteen weeks counting the steps taken (including biking and swimming) throughout the day with GCC-supplied pedometers, recording their step counts and entering them into the GCC Web site. The site added each participant’s individual step counts to the team’s cumulative count and calculated that figure as a kilometer/mile distance, which was then used to plot the team’s progress on a virtual tour of the world. Obviously, the more active employees were, the further they traveled, the healthier they became and the more productive their teams became.”

Although the “travelers” stepped (and biked and swam) lively, there was still time for sight-seeing along the way. As they traversed the virtual map, said Hawkins, “they learned about the customs, history, foods, politics and geography of each location they passed through.”

It’s a good thing the GCC travelers were walking, biking and swimming their way around the world, as it would have taken a lot of tour buses to accommodate them: Hawkins reports that 2,625 employees (65 percent of Discovery’s workforce) in more than 20 countries participated in the round-the-world trek.

Like any tourists, Challenge participants also picked up souvenirs to take home—but in this case the mementoes came in the form of  daily health tips and weekly menu plans that encouraged the globe-trotters to examine their eating habits and consider adding healthier activities to their lifestyles. What’s more impressive, though, is what they left behind along the way: that is, lost “baggage” totaling 2,053 pounds, an average weight loss of total of 9.5 pounds per person.

In addition to more streamlined bodies, 72 percent of GCC participants reported an increase in their job satisfaction, 86 percent said their morale had increased and a whopping 90 percent reported an improvement in their overall health and well-being.

Please Pass the Compass

Although Comcast has won rave reviews for its ongoing Maternity Management, Tobacco Cessation and Weight Watchers at Work programs, perhaps its biggest smash hit is one that—like Discovery’s GCC—encourages workers to get around. In this case, though, employees aren’t trotting the globe. Instead, thanks to Comcast’s partnership with Accolade, they’re getting assistance with the daunting—and time-consuming—task of navigating the health care system.
Lauren Gemberling, Comcast’s Wellness Coordinator, explained, “Accolade’s Health Assistants help our employees and their families access the best care and make better health decisions. They do everything from helping to find the right doctor to resolving billing issues, providing nutritional counseling and preparing for a doctor’s office visit or a hospital stay.”

Gemberling and her colleagues constantly receive messages of thanks from grateful employees, but one summed it up this way: “Accolade is the best new benefit Comcast could offer! They are so helpful and do the ‘legwork’ that most working people don’t have time to do.”

Serving Carrots?

Nearly all the HR pros I spoke with reported that their companies offer some kind of incentives to encourage employee participation in wellness programs and/or to reward those who achieve specific goals. For example, Scripps Networks Interactive gives a VISA gift card to each employee who has a biometric screening at the company’s bi-annual health fair, dubbed Healthapalooza. 

Christopher Powell, Scripps’ EVP of HR, credits the financial incentive at least in part for the fair’s success. “Our 2011 Healthapalooza events drew 70 percent employee participation,” he said. “We also anticipate strong engagement in our upcoming Get Active! fitness challenge, in which participating employees will have another opportunity to receive a VISA gift card for each event completed and a chance to win a large grand prize in a random drawing.”

Turner also sees the value in rewarding healthy behavior with financial carrots in addition to offering an onsite athletic club and pre-packaged healthy meals. Said Alisha Penick, “Last year our parent company, Time Warner, partnered with Staywell to launch a wellness program providing employees, spouses and same-sex domestic partners an opportunity to earn up to $800 in cash incentives by completing an online health assessment and participating in free coaching and care management programs. This program will continue in 2012 and will be expanded to all covered domestic partners.” The incentive program from Time Warner and on-site offerings from Turner incent employee participation through convenience and financial rewards.

In contrast, said Discovery’s Hawkins, “Although our healthy living programs are free of charge to the employees, we do not offer additional financial incentives since participation in our programs is so high. Our on-site childcare center has a waitlist of nearly 40 families clamoring to get their children in. Eighty-five percent of employees make visits to the Wellness Center annually. We frequently have to turn away employees from participating in our many on-site fitness courses because registration fills the moment individuals are allowed to sign up. Offering a large and varied menu of programs is an incentive for our employees.” 

The Bottom Line

Across the board, with or without financial incentives, the CTHRA’s members I spoke with have seen a reduction in both employee sick days and hours away from the job for medical appointments and travel time. Even companies without elaborate onsite medical facilities have noticed a definite benefit of sponsoring such basic programs as walking groups and annual health challenges. Said Janice Turner, SVP of HR for WOW! Internet Cable and Phone, “Absenteeism has definitely decreased for employees who have participated in our health challenges.”

For larger companies that maintain extensive facilities, the statistics are dramatic. For example, said Turner’s Penick, “In 2011, our Wellness Center saved us nearly 12,000 hours of employee absenteeism for doctors’ visits. The onsite athletic clubs, Weight Watchers at work, free screenings and flu shots also save employees’ time away from work.”

In terms of dollars and cents, both Turner’s Penick and Discovery’s Hawkins reported cost savings in excess of $1 million resulting from their onsite wellness centers.

The effects of healthy-living initiatives on talent recruitment and retention are harder to quantify, but said Janice Turner of WOW!, “Job candidates are impressed with the fact that we are a health-conscious organization that offers on-site health fairs, on-site biometric testing, and health related initiatives.”

ESPN’s Richardson concurred: “We are certain our wellness offerings aid both in attracting and retaining talent. The Wellness & Services information is accessible through the ESPNCareers.com site which helps in attracting new candidates, and our wellness programs serve to enhance the experience of employees while at work, which aids in retention rates.”

Given the value for both employers and employees, healthy-living initiatives will be long-lived. Hats off to the employers offering them and employees taking advantage of the programs. If you found this article interesting, you can look forward to reading about a wider scope of industry-specific trends and benchmarks when CTHRA releases its 2012 Employee Benefits Survey results during the second quarter of this year. Until then, here’s to your health.

(Pamela Williams, CAE, Executive Director of the Cable and Telecommunications Human Resources Association (CTHRA))

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