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Workplace Wellness Takes Off, Using Money As a Motivator

Jun 3, 2013

Susan Southard uses a treadmill desk for an hour at her office in El Dorado Hills. She not only walks about 10 miles a week, she also saves money on her health insurance premiums.
Credit Capital Public Radio

The demands of the workplace and home life can make it hard to find time to be physically active. Many employers are incorporating healthy activities into the workplace, often using money as a motivator. But as Pauline Bartolone in Sacramento reports, the trend comes with concerns about who’s paying more for health care.

Susan Southard walks 10 miles a week without taking her eyes off a computer screen.

“The maximum speed is two miles. So I’ll do the maximum,” says Southard.

Every day at 12 noon, Southard uses a treadmill desk for an hour at her office in El Dorado Hills. She adjusts the height of the desk, turns on the fan, and starts walking.

“I’ve lost weight over the last couple of years,” says Southard. “About 40 pounds. And that’s really without changing my eating habits.”

The mileage she puts in on her walking work desk has helped her shed the pounds. She likes being able to work normally at her keyboard while getting a workout.  

“My doctor told me that I’ve gone from morbidly obese to just obese now.”

Southard says she has more energy. She also has more money in her back account. Her employer is the health insurer, Blue Shield of California. It offers an average 18% discount on health premiums to employees who meet specific health goals. Bryce Williams of Blue Shield says treadmill desks are just one aspect of the company’s workplace fitness and healthy eating initiatives.

“The traditional model has been ‘exercise 20 to 30 minutes’ a day 3 to 5 days a week, etc., etc. And we’ve been trying that for 20 to 30 years,” says Williams.

Williams says anybody who is inclined to follow that regimen would have already done it.

But what it really means is I’ve to come in early, go home late, skip my lunch, miss my kid’s ballgame, and if that’s what we’re up against we always lose,” says Williams.

Blue Shield of California, says its in-house health program may have brought millions of dollars in savings for the company and its employees.

“When we started this, about one in four of our employees was hypertensive with documented high blood pressure which is a pretty damning indictment of a health care organization, right? And now that number is one in ten,” says Williams.

"Employers have come to realize that the only real way to improve the economic burden of health care is to improve health." - Tom Parry, Integrated Benefits Institute

  The California health insurer is not the only large employer to join the workplace wellness trend.

“As health care costs have steeply increased over the last decade or so, employers have really struggled with what to do,” says Tom Parry of the Integrated Benefits Institute. He says for a while, employers responded to rising health costs by changing coverage to shift costs to employees.

“But I think eventually, employers have come to realize that the only real way to improve the economic burden of health care is to improve health,” says Parry.

But the impact of workplace wellness programs is questioned and controversial.  Parry says it’s hard to know how many California workplaces use the programs, and there’s wide variation in what they look like. And he says it’s also difficult to measure if they effectively reduce health costs.   

“You know I think the evidence is spotty. There’s evidence in some cases that shows it works, there’s evidence in other cases that shows, well, not so sure,” says Parry.

Critics of the trend are also concerned about fairness. They say workplace wellness programs may just be a way to shift health expenses onto people whose circumstances make it harder to be healthy. Democratic State Senator Bill Monning offered a bill this year that would have prohibited financial penalties.

"These are good objectives, we just don't think they should be linked to premium payment penalty for people who aren't able to achieve those health outcomes." - Sen. Bill Monning (D-Carmel)

  “For the 20 something young person, let’s say a single young man who’s – everyday, punches out at five and goes to the gym, he may be in a very different position than a young mother with three kids who’s working part time and has to take a bus to pick up children at day care. They’re not on a level playing field,” says Monning.

Monning and others say these programs are likely to flourish under the new federal health law. He says he supports the idea, but workplace wellness programs should reward participation, not force people to pay more if they have pre-existing conditions.

“And these are good objectives, we just don’t think they should be linked to premium payment penalty for people who aren’t able to achieve those health outcomes,” says Monning.

Blue Shield of California says is employees can also get discounts for participation in programs like weight loss. They can also get a discount with a doctor’s note excusing them.