Child's Play

Some companies are encouraging multiple generations of employee families -- from grandparents to grandchildren -- to embrace healthy lifestyles. While most programs target employees' children, they are more of a strategic business decision than a warm and fuzzy benefit.

Monday, February 6, 2012
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Back in 2005, Baptist Health South Florida in Miami noticed that obesity among local children was reaching epidemic levels, potentially causing an avalanche of health problems. Heart disease. Diabetes. High blood pressure.

The health system couldn't sit back and watch as the young members of its community packed on more pounds. It introduced Families Step Up, a free, four-week wellness program offered twice a year -- which has since been expanded to eight weeks -- for children of its 15,000 employees, says Leah Holzwarth, corporate director of Wellness Advantage at the Baptist Health system.

"What's unique about this program is that it's a whole-family approach," she says. In Miami, she adds, even grandmothers are invited because many buy the household groceries and prepare the family meals.

Some companies are encouraging multiple generations of employee families -- from grandparents to grandchildren -- to embrace healthy lifestyles. While most programs target employees' children, they are more of a strategic business decision than a warm and fuzzy benefit. Companies are hoping this early intervention will reduce childhood obesity and other related illnesses, such as diabetes, in an effort to minimize healthcare claims.

The Baptist program is a good example. Delivered by in-house staff, it requires that at least one parent accompany their child during the weekly, two-hour evening classes. Between five and 10 families attend, which mainly targets children between the ages of eight and 12. They're served a nutritious dinner; participate in health screenings and a fitness test; play outdoor games; practice yoga; learn about nutrition, stress management and effective communication; and are given homework assignments such as reading food labels.

To boost future attendance, Holzwarth says, the next class will be held at a different Baptist hospital to better accommodate employees across town.

Meanwhile, she says, the outcomes are impressive. Although no data is available regarding healthcare claims, all participants improve in at least one area, such as lowering their cholesterol, blood pressure or body weight.

"Childhood obesity is not just the child's problem," she says. "We can introduce healthy behaviors and behavior changes before things get out of control."

No More Excuses

The development of wellness activities for employees' children is a growing trend among companies, says LuAnn Heinen, vice president of the Washington-based National Business Group on Health. The goal, she says, is to produce a healthier family, which is especially beneficial for companies that hire multiple generations of families.

According to a NBGH publication, Childhood Obesity: It's Everyone's Business, "... children and adolescents are responsible for 14.7 percent of a typical large employer's healthcare costs . . . . In 2006, obese children had nearly twice as many physician office visits and three times the hospitalization rate as non-obese children. The per-person cost to private insurers for healthcare utilization was $3,547 and $1,346 for obese and non-obese children, respectively."

Heinen says the lessons children learn through companies' wellness initiatives can also rub off on their parents. Companies not only reach children through their parents, she says, but also parents through their children.

Among her favorite corporate examples is Dallas-based Texas Instruments, which allows employees' children to take advantage of its three on-site fitness facilities and a personal trainer. Children between the ages of six and 15 can also attend TI Kids Camp or TI Teen Camp during the summer and school breaks, participating in a variety of wellness programs such as nutrition, rock climbing or bowling. Throughout the year, children can also enroll in tennis lessons and fitness classes or join a swim team.

Heinen says employers without extensive resources can still be proactive. They can conduct sports activities for children on Take Your Child to Work Day, sponsor wellness programs at local schools, or work with their health plan to ensure that children receive biometric screenings and appropriate counseling from their pediatricians.

A good starting point, she says, is to survey employees about their concerns regarding their children's health, then design programs or services that address those needs.

"There are all kinds of barriers -- insurance, liability," says Heinen, referring to excuses companies make to avoid developing such programs. "But for a lot of companies, it's really what's good for their own employees. When kids are healthier, there is a belief that the productivity impact is significant on parents."

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Fun and Fitness

Other companies seem to be reaching the same conclusion. Minitab Inc., a State College, Pa.-based global software provider, recently developed Minitab Kids' Camp, a five-day summer camp for children of its 287 U.S. employees.

"We realized that 75 percent of our [healthcare] utilization has always come from dependents [of employees]," says Todd Hershbine, human resource and administrative services executive for Minitab. "We never ignore 75 percent of our 401(k) portfolio. Why were we ignoring 75 percent of our medical portfolio?"

Last August, 40 children attended Minitab's first camp, learning how to swim, eat healthy, do yoga and even reduce their stress. The registration fee was $125 per child. The camp focuses on employees' children between the ages of five and 13 because, says Hershbine, this age group would be most receptive to adopting new lifestyle practices.

Every morning, in-house staff and community volunteers cover key topics such as nutrition, exercise, safe biking habits, basic first-aid and even how to rescue someone from a burning building. The only requirement is that employees have to eat lunch with their children every day to enforce good nutritional habits.

For the past five years, the company has also sponsored a weekly kid's circuit during the summer between 4:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. There, kids alternate between six different exercise stations in the company's on-site gym. An adult exercise circuit was also developed so parents could exercise alongside their children.

While it's too premature to determine the camp's effect on healthcare claims, the big question is if it has had any impact at all.

Pre- and post-camp survey results reveal that participants increased their knowledge about nutrition and exercise; however, Hershbine says he won't know if they applied what they learned until they return to next year's camp.

"We have faith that by doing this, it will produce a positive outcome," he says. "We can invest in an insurance company or invest in ourselves. We choose to invest in ourselves."

See also:

Overview of Kids Camp

"Health Nags" in HR

Childhood Obesity Strategies

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