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Wellness and Small Business

​StarTribune

fluWellness and small businesses are connecting
  • Article by: JIM ADAMS
  • Star Tribune
  • January 7, 2012 – 9:24 PM
Small and medium-sized businesses in Dakota County and elsewhere are climbing aboard the employee wellness bandwagon.
County and state programs offer help in setting up corporate wellness programs  that large companies have embraced after seeing health costs drop, said  Tom Mason, president of the nonprofit Alliance for a Healthier  Minnesota. The alliance is working with local chambers of commerce to  reach their members through wellness forums like one recently held by the Burnsville chamber.
“Smaller companies are just starting to see the business strategy of using wellness to apply to your bottom line. Well employees are more  productive and happier,” said Mason. “Large businesses like Medtronic,  Target and Cargill are keenly aware of the effects of wellness in terms  of health care costs and productivity.”
The  alliance, started more than two years ago by some of Minnesota’s  largest companies, cites wellness research on its website, viewable  through local chamber website links. The studies include:
  • Research cited by the American Heart Association that shows the impact  of employer spending on health improvement. Programs such as smoking  cessation have achieved a rate of return on investment ranging from $3  to $15 for each dollar invested, with savings realized within 12 to 18  months.
  • A Highmark Inc. study published in the March/April 2011 edition of the  American Journal of Health Promotion found that employees who  consistently used work wellness programs saw their health care costs  rise at a 15 percent slower rate than a comparison group without such  programs.
  • Flu shot programs for adults have resulted in 34 to 44 percent fewer  physician visits and a near equal drop in lost workdays, according to  the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
“I think there is a growing interest by employers in doing things to help  people make healthy choices, because so much of what contributes to  chronic heart disease, cancer or diabetes is preventable,” said Mary Montagne, Dakota County health promotion supervisor.
County health specialists often recommend that companies start by adopting  free and low-cost initiatives, such as a policy establishing tobacco-free company grounds, encouraging exercise during breaks and replacing calorie-laden food with fruit or healthy foods in vending machines, cafeterias or company meetings, Montagne said. She said her office worked with businesses, churches and other employers with about 10,000 workers in 19 locations in a state-sponsored program over the past two years. The big three health concerns the county and businesses focus on are healthy eating, adequate exercise and smoking cessation, she said.
Rigid Hitch, Inc. of Burnsville worked with county specialists on a tobacco cessation program that provides phone, online and in-person counseling on how to stop smoking or chewing tobacco. About half of its 40 workers used tobacco, and eight agreed to try the state-funded Quitplan, Montagne said.
The eight met weekly on company time for an hour with a counselor for five  weeks in 2010. Afterwards, half used less tobacco and four quit smoking,  the company said. One of the four who quit said she didn’t have a  bronchitis attack last winter for the first time in years, avoiding a  doctor visit and sick days.
According  to Mercer’s 2010 national survey of employer-sponsored wellness plans,  only about 27 percent of firms with fewer than 500 workers offered  wellness programs. That compared to 43 percent of firms with at least 10,000 workers.
Trusight Inc., a 1,150-member association of small employers, recently surveyed  285 Minnesota companies and found 29 percent host classes to help  workers quit smoking, 16 percent offer weight loss classes, and 12  percent offer programs for stress reduction. Others have added healthier  vending machine food or offer flu shots at work.
Goodrich  Corp., an aerospace product maker with four facilities in Eagan and  Burnsville, started a wellness program in 2008, and by 2010, it found  that its total health costs had dropped for the first time. That meant no increase in 2012 premiums for employees, including 1,500 in Dakota  County, said human resources manager Sarah Wellcome.
She said the company, which self-insures its employee health costs, offers exercise rooms, healthy cafeteria foods, and classes on weight loss and other health matters. It gave employees a day off in September to attend its first Wellness Day, which included a bike ride, a run, volleyball, a farmer’s market and other activities.
“It was getting people involved in taking care of themselves,” said spokesman Sol Mirelez. Besides reducing health costs and improving fitness and health, Mirelez said, “It’s also mentally therapeutic. You function better.”
Jim Adams • 952-746-3283
© 2011 Star Tribune