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Fitness Comes to the Workplace
Next time your boss says, 'Take a hike!' she might mean it
By David Armstrong   Fox Market Wire
Desk potatoes beware: your sloth is costing your boss big bucks.

Stress and sedentary lifestyles are making workers sick, and companies are discovering that a few dollars spent today on prevention save thousands of dollars of cure tomorrow.

In addition to long-standing offerings like smoking cessation programs and blood pressure screenings, companies are building on-site fitness centers, holding yoga and meditation classes, and employing staff nutritionists to ensure workers are eating properly.

Research shows that preventable illnesses account for approximately 70 percent of all health care costs in the country, costs which are primarily picked up by employer-paid health plans. Behind these illnesses are factors like smoking, high-risk alcohol consumption, sedentary lifestyle and poor eating habits.

To counteract some of these trends, corporate wellness programs started to appear in the early 1990s, according to Robert Levering, co-founder of the Great Place to Work Institute, a San Francisco-based consulting service.

Some 56 percent of companies participating in the Society for Human Resource Management benefits survey offer some kind of wellness program to their employees. That's up from 43 percent just two years ago.

"Companies that have wellness programs will find lower medical and worker compensation costs," said Angela Camera, a spokeswoman for the SHRM. "They are going to have better attendance and happier, more productive employees."

Actual cost savings attributable to these programs are hard to measure. But some research has shown that for every dollar a company spends on improving its workers health, it saves five dollars on the bottom line.

And employers hope that a happy employee is one who will stick around for awhile. With unemployment at a record low, corporate managers find that paying attention to the diverse needs of their workers helps attract and retain employees.

But that's not why publishing company Rodale Press in Emmaus, Penn., offers its employees a comprehensive wellness program that includes everything from a fitness center with weight training and aerobic exercise machines to classes in dancing, cycling, scuba diving and yoga.

"We don't sit there and say 'Gee, does it make us more productive? Does it cut down on absenteeism?'" said Patrick Taylor, a spokesman for the company. "We just assume these things are going to benefit us."

For Rodale, a publisher of magazines like Bicycling, Organic Gardner, Backpacker and Men's Health, it is also makes good business sense, Taylor said. "You can't be the leader in something if you don't really practice it."

A full-time staff of on-site trainers readies employees to run in races ranging from 5K to marathons. The company employs a masseuse to limber up the muscles of stressed-out workers. Several cafeterias throughout the company's headquarters offer healthier eating options at a discount and is open throughout the day.

Synovus Financial Corp. in Columbus, GA has instituted a wellness program for its employees, which includes an on-site gym run by the local YMCA.

In addition, the company provides physical examines for its employees, including regular blood pressure screenings, and a variety of classes on topics such as breast cancer awareness and healthy practices for expectant mothers.

The company also employs a staff of "wellness experts," who answer calls from employees about their health concerns.

But sometimes, employees have to be pulled kicking and screaming into a healthy lifestyle.

At Phoenix-based U-Haul International, Inc., employees are required to enroll in the company's wellness program to qualify for the company-sponsored health plan. Smokers, however, must make a $5.45 weekly co-payment.

But once in the program, the company pays $300 per employee for smoking cessation kits and programs.

The U-Haul program also provides a $100 savings bond for an employee's newborn child, if the mother participated in the company's maternity care program.

"The wellness programs help reduce medical costs for the employer and the employee by reducing the need for medical services," said Johna Burke, U-Haul's public relations director.

But there also is a moral dimension to investing in employees' health.

"To provide an environment where people can lead healthy lives, it's the the right thing to do," Rob Ward, director of corporate communications at Synovus Financial Corp.

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