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As companies are shaping up, fewer workers may be shipping out
By Susan Bowles, SPECIAL TO GANNETT
Making Wellness a Priority

Looking for an employer that puts a premium on wellness? Here are some questions to ask and things to look for, courtesy of Roslyn Stone, COO of Corporate Wellness Inc. in Mount Kisco, NY.

  • Is wellness part of the company's culture?

  • Does it have onsite employee events?

  • Can the whole family participate in its wellness events?

  • Does the company reimburse fitness club memberships? If so, is the process simple enough to take advantage of?

  • If the company offers an onsite fitness center, is it well-staffed? Well-maintained? What are its hours, and do employees use it?

If you love your employer but wish wellness was a bigger priority, follow these tips from Carol Evans, CEO of Working Mother Media.

  • Figure out what you want.

  • Find out what your company currently offers.

  • Survey coworkers to find out what wellness offerings they'd like to have.

  • Write a proposal and take it to HR.

  • If you're turned down, try again. "You don't give up. You've got to go back year after year.

Ken Visser knew he needed to get into shape. He also knew it would take "a kick in the pants" for him to begin.

Visser's kick came from an unlikely source: his employer, Silver Spring, MD-based Discovery Communications Inc. Since joining the global media and entertainment company in December, Visser has participated in a weight-loss competition, attended an exercise boot camp and shaved pounds and inches off his 42-year-old body.

None of which surprises Evelyne Steward, Discovery's vice president for life work. Last year, the company's 5,000 employees worldwide lost close to 3 tons of weight. And it wasn't by accident. Discovery has made taking care of employees' health a key business strategy.

"We very much believe a healthy employee is going to make a wealthy company," Steward says.

Discovery is among a growing group of U.S. businesses that have made that bottom-line connection and are acting on it. The privately-held company was just named one of Working Mother magazine's 100 best companies for working mothers, and CEO Judith McHale was honored as 2004's family champion. Among Discovery's lauded programs:

  • An onsite health and wellness center at the company's Silver Spring headquarters, staffed by a physician and nurse practitioner.

  • The Employee Body Challenge Competition, a 12-week, global competition that helps employees shed weight and trim inches.

  • A sports and fitness reimbursement policy.

  • Onsite massage therapy, health fairs and health screenings for vision, hearing, osteoporosis and mental health, among others.

That diversity of offerings is reflected in other companies on Working Mother's list. Genentech, an NYSE-traded biotech company based in South San Francisco, offers a five-week exercise boot camp. Outdoor outfitter Timberland (NYSE:TBL) provides employees canoes, kayaks and snow shoes for their workouts. Household-product manufacturer SC Johnson has built an actual park for its employees and their families to use.

Why this push?

Money.

U.S. businesses lost 280 million workdays last year because of stress-related illnesses, says Carol Evans, CEO of Working Mother Media. They lose the equivalent of $600 per worker each year because of unanticipated absences. Those numbers, coupled with the skyrocketing cost of health insurance, put the onus on companies to pay attention to -- and do something about -- their employees' health.

"Instead of treating the illness, they're treating the person," Evans says.

While keeping employees healthy will benefit any company, wellness programs are still primarily the purview of large companies. According to the Society for Human Resource Management's 2004 benefits study, larger organizations are the ones offering help with weight loss, smoking cessation, onsite fitness centers and nutritional therapy.

Yet the trend is changing. Sixty percent of all human resource professionals SHRM surveyed said their companies offer onsite vaccinations. Forty-three percent said they provide health screenings for high blood pressure or high cholesterol.

And smart companies recognize that if they want to grow, they need to pay attention to keeping employees healthy -- regardless of their businesses' size.

"That's what keeps them growing," says Roslyn Stone, chief operating officer of Corporate Wellness Inc., a health services company based in Mount Kisco, NY.

Besides, companies that aren't already offering wellness programs may soon find themselves forced to, says Evans. Otherwise, they won't be able to attract and keep the best and the brightest.

"The war for talent is going to get much worse," she says. "You need to secure the talent, you need to keep the talent in place. You're training talent, and you don't want to lose them."

Wellness offerings help retain workers by increasing productivity, improving customer relations and boosting morale, Evans says. Best yet, they create company loyalty. If a business can help its employees lose weight, stop smoking or get in shape, "how do you think they're going to feel about that company?"

It's a sentiment Discovery's Visser echoes.

"It's a pretty special company" he says of his employer. "Discovery is what a company should be and may have been in the past, but you rarely find anymore."


Susan Bowles is a business journalist based in Washington, DC. She has 20 years journalism experience and has written for USA Today, USATODAY.com, the Washington Post, the St. Petersburg Times and The Palm Beach Post.