Work-site wellness programs

March 14, 2001

ANN ARBOR---They're springtime rituals with names that speak a language of their own: walk-a-thons, bike-to-work week, Dump-Your-Plump month, walk-at-lunch week.

These week-long and month-long programs reflect an employers commitment to work-place wellness programs, albeit an annual commitment, and it's a commitment that has increasingly become a year-round part of the work place for thousands of employers, said D.W. Edington, director of the Health Management Research Center (HMRC) at the University of Michigan. Edington will address the economic benefits of work-place wellness programs on March 21 during the research center's 20th annual Wellness in the Workplace Conference in Ann Arbor.

"Corporations now see health management programs as the only long-term alternative to the continuing escalation of medical care costs. Nearly 60 percent of all companies and 95 percent of large companies have programs designed to encourage individuals to take some responsibility for their own health.

"There is greater return from investment in preventing healthy people from slipping into poor health behaviors than by trying to make chronically sick people well. Individuals benefit in terms of less pain and suffering and a higher quality of life. The corporation benefits in terms of less medical care costs and greater productivity," Edington said.

Employers were first introduced to the concept of investing in health promotion programs in the 1970s. By the 1980s, employers were spending $5 per employee on work-place wellness programs and today they're shelling out $60 per employee for year-round programs that range from smoking cessation programs to lessons in warding off stress.

The cost: 1 percent-2 percent of the typical medical care costs.

Work-place wellness programs have caught on. They are more than a trend, more than an experimental program of employers who know they can trim health care costs and improve productivity by providing an environment where employees remain healthy.

Employees like them because exercising, eating right and chilling out makes them feel better. Employers like them because happier, healthier employees are more productive and cost less.

HMRC research shows that work-place wellness programs save employers $80 to $225 per employee per year in medical care costs and an equal amount in productivity gains.

"Work site health management programs are part of the new way to do health care in America. Everyone benefits and it is truly one of the classic win-win situations for all the stakeholders."

Other conference presenters include: George Pfeiffer of the WorkCare Group in Charlottesville, Va.; Garry M. Lindsay, director of business partnerships for Partnership for Prevention in Washington, D.C.; and representatives from Cuyahoga Community College near Cleveland.

The HMRC is a health, wellness and prevention research laboratory established in 1976 within U-M's Division of Kinesiology. HMRC researchers and consultants have assessed the health status of more than 2 million workers and have worked with more than 1,000 businesses. Edington is a professor and past director of the Division of Kinesiology.

Featured presentations at the 20th annual Wellness in the Workplace Conference include:


At Cuyahoga Community College, a college of 1,200 full-time employees near Cleveland, college officials switched its onsite health care emphasis from treatment to health promotion. The occupational nurse who dispenses aspirin and treats minor injuries is no longer a staple here. Instead, the college hired Debra Dailey, a public health education specialist and an R.N., to develop and implement a work-place wellness program that offers employees financial incentives to participate.

The college's goal: improve quality of life, reduce health care costs and have happier and healthier employees.

Employees are encouraged to create a personal wellness curriculum designed to meet individual needs. They chose from 89 programs akin to college courses with credits and concentrations in social, intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual, occupational wellness. Employees can graduate with "honors" and a $100 bonus for completing the program.

Dailey, who will present at the March 21 conference with colleague Nicole Canter, said 35 percent-40 percent of the college's full-time employees participate in the work-place wellness program launched in September.


The Healthy People 2010 report issued last year by the Surgeon General and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services outlines prevention goals and objectives to be achieved by 2010.

The two primary work-site objectives are to have all employers, regardless of size, offer a comprehensive employee health promotion program and have all employees participate in employer-sponsored programs.

Garry M. Lindsay, director of business partnerships for Partnership for Prevention in Washington, D.C., said that at least 50 of the national objectives outlined in Healthy People 2010 can be adopted as work-site health promotion objectives. Partnership for Prevention identified eight of the 50 as "Leading Health Objectives for Employers."

The eight objectives include: reduce tobacco use; reduce the cost of lost productivity in the work place due to alcohol and drug use; increase the proportion of adults who engage regularly in moderate physical activity; increase the proportion of adults who are at a healthy weight; reduce deaths from work-related injuries; reduce work-related injuries resulting in medical treatment, lost time, or restricted work activity; insure more workers; and insure more workers with preventive services.

"The health of the community impacts the economic health of its businesses. Employers draw workers from their community. If the local population smokes too much, drinks too much and exercises too little, these employers will likely have more workers with multiple health risk factors. We know from research that workers with multiple health risks ultimately cost employers more than workers without these health risks," Lindsay said.

Lindsay is director of Partnerships for a Healthy Workforce, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-funded national alliance of small and mid-sized businesses that share resources and ideas in an effort to encourage more businesses to invest in employee and community wellness programs.

Lindsay, an M.P.H. and C.H.E.S., has more than 20 years of health education experience, including 10 years managing Mobil Corporation's health promotion initiatives.


"Many times we just look at the operating margins and then decide whether that is good or bad for the organization, but there are other ways we can affect profitability, such as by managing risk. If we can reduce health risks, we can increase the profit margin," said George J. Pfeiffer, founder and president of the WorkCare Group, Inc., in Charlottesville, Va.

Pfeiffer is an internationally recognized expert in work-site health promotion. He has developed employee health and productivity initiatives for leading corporations such as Xerox Corporation, The Travelers, UAW-GM, and Applied Materials.

Having a healthy work force can enhance an organization's bottom line, but for an employee, good health is a transferable job skill employees don't often consider, Pfeiffer said.
Web site:

EDITORS: For more information about the Wellness in the Workplace Conference or the HMRC, call (734) 763-2462.

University of Michigan

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