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Make Workplace Wellness Work

Creating competition within an organization may make it easier for employees to get healthy and stay fit. And studies show that those employees are more productive, call in sick less often and visit the doctor less frequently.

Monday, June 11, 2012
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According to the Wellness Councils of America, more than 80 percent of American businesses with at least 50 employees engage in some type of health-promotion program. The good news is that employers understand that helping employees stay healthy is good business.

The bad news is that the most-common benefit that employers provide is access to online wellness information. However, I'd argue that is not enough to simply offer educational programs and expect to see reductions in healthcare costs or improvements in employee morale.

Employers both large and small need to do more for the health of their employees and the well-being of their companies.

Why?

The World Health Organization has identified lack of physical activity as the fourth-highest preventable cause of death in the world.

Here in the United States, the corporate workforce is not only getting older, but also more sedentary -- a sure recipe for increased healthcare claims unless employees are motivated to make better choices.

A recent national survey by the Principal Financial Group, based in Des Moines, Iowa, found that employers that invested in wellness programs showed medical costs fall by an average of $3.27 for every dollar spent on wellness, while absenteeism costs fell by an average of $2.73.

The fact is, study after study shows that healthy and fit employees are more productive, call in sick less often and visit the doctor less frequently.

Healthier employees are happier, too. That's good for morale -- and good for the bottom line.

Michael Johnson, an organizational behavior specialist and professor at the University of Washington's Foster School of Business, points to research that suggests that employee morale is one of the last remaining competitive advantages of organizations. Those that do well managing people and morale also tend to do well financially.

This could explain why there are a growing number of human resource departments interested in employer-sponsored "wellness challenges."

Wellness challenges typically involve healthy engagements between employees, either individually or as part of a team. They are a fun and effective way to increase physical activity in the workplace, while helping employees manage their weight and foster company teamwork at the same time.

Fortunately, wellness challenges have come a long way since the creation of the President's Physical Fitness Challenge. (How many of us remember being forced to do sit-ups and sprints in gym class?)

And while The Biggest Loser may make for compelling television, few real-life challenges involve cursing, screaming or crying in the name of wellness.

Wellness challenges are effective for one very simple reason: Social accountability and peer support is highly motivational. In fact, a recent study published in the journal Obesity showed that peers' attitudes and behavior are linked to success in weight loss.

In other words, fun and friendly competition goes a long way to helping people make a change or reach a specific goal. In the workplace, the keys to success lie in the planning and implementation.

Here are some ideas for companies that are considering implementing a workplace wellness challenge:

* Involve the entire workforce and their families. Include upper-level management to set the tone that it is important for everyone to participate.

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* Incorporate team-based challenges that build camaraderie and morale, and allow employees to perform and track a variety of physical activities -- instead of expecting everyone to bike or run, for example.

* Offer creative incentives and prizes that revolve around health and wellness, so the overall message of health is not lost in the reward. Make sure that awards are meaningful, i.e., not another water bottle or T-shirt with your logo.

* Ensure consistent promotion around the event to engage as many employees as possible. Use email blasts, promotional posters, onsite registration events, etc.

* Make it fun and easy for employees to get and stay involved. An online platform to log activities, record number of steps taken, track weight loss, etc., may be helpful in that regard.

* Show a commitment to long-term wellness, i.e., establish a wellness calendar and give employees a chance to participate in company-sponsored challenges throughout the year.

* Consider contributing to a local cause based on employee participation in the wellness challenge. Providing employees an opportunity to help local causes while working to improve their own health is a powerful motivator and morale booster.

Let's face it: Employees know how hard it can be to get fit and stay motivated on their own. Wellness challenges allow companies to invigorate their workforce while improving productivity and reining in healthcare costs.

That's a challenge we should all embrace.

Dave Miller is director of LifeBalance, which offers turnkey wellness and health promotion programs designed to encourage participants to make healthy, lasting lifestyle changes. The company services over 3,500 organizations and approximately 500,000 members across seven states.

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