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For Company Wellness Programs, Experts Say Carrots Work Better Than Sticks


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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember.

And I'm Barbara Klein. This week on our program, we look at what some companies are doing to help their employees get healthy and stay healthy. We also talk to an employment lawyer about whether some corporate wellness programs might go too far.

Jim Hersey is a health policy researcher in Washington. Mr. Hersey is in his early sixties. A few years ago, he developed some pain in his shoulder. Typing on his computer at work seemed to make it worse.

JIM HERSEY: "So I went to my doctor. He gave me Motrin or some heavy-duty aspirin. I didn’t realize I was allergic to aspirin. So I ended up with internal bleeding, falling down on the street, going to the ER [emergency room], getting multiple units of blood."

These days, through his employer, RTI International, Jim Hersey is trying a new approach to staying well.

CLASS: “Ommmmmm.”

Yoga.

INSTRUCTOR: "Find mountain pose, releasing the arms alongside your body."

For one hour each Wednesday and Friday, Jim Hersey and nine of his fellow workers think about their breathing instead of their jobs. But they say the time they spend doing yoga is good for business.

JIM HERSEY: “I’m refreshed and more productive after class. My e-mails are less cranky.”

WOMAN: “It certainly helps us all become a bit more centered, a bit more focused, maybe a little bit less stressed in our rather tense work environment. I think a lot of companies are finally figuring out that preventative care in general is much less expensive in the long run.”

Each yoga class costs the company one hundred fifty dollars.

Ann Mirabito is an assistant professor in the business school at Baylor University in Texas.

ANN MIRABITO:”I think that there’s been steady growth in workplace wellness programs over the past thirty years.”

In December she published a study about workplace wellness programs in the Harvard Business Review. She found that at least three-fourths of American companies with more than ten thousand employees have some kind of wellness program.

She found that some programs involved little more than leaving fruit on employees’ desks to encourage healthy eating. Other programs provide fitness centers or yoga classes. Still others offer personal counseling to help employees lose weight, exercise more and stop smoking.

These changes can reduce the risk of costly, long-term conditions like heart disease and diabetes. As a result, Professor Mirabito says effective wellness programs can make good business sense.

ANN MIRABITO: "There’s evidence that that return on investment is somewhere between three and six to one. So for every dollar that’s invested in a workplace wellness program, companies will benefit with three to six dollars in payback."

Rising health costs and an aging workforce can eat away at a company's profits. But, of course, becoming healthy is not an overnight project. Big changes, like losing weight or stopping smoking, can take years. And if an employee changes jobs, the employer that offered the program may never benefit.

Sure enough, at the end of a recent yoga class, one of the employees, Rick, announced that he was leaving the company.

After three years of yoga classes, Rick was taking his professional skills -- and his downward-dog -- elsewhere.

Rising costs for health care are not the only reason for more investment in workplace wellness. Business professor Ann Mirabito found two other reasons.

The first is women. Women are usually the health manager in the home. Now that so many women are working, she says, they are becoming the health managers in the office, too. They expect healthy places to work in, and they demand more balance between their lives at work and at home.

The other factor is the baby boom generation -- the millions of Americans who were born in the generation after World War Two.

ANN MIRABITO: "Baby boomers are seeing their parents living longer. And baby boomers are understanding how important it is to stay healthy throughout your life."

Baby boomers might be more likely to eat well or go to a yoga class. But what about workers who are not so willing to take good care of themselves?

BARBARA KLEIN: Brett Powell designs workplace wellness programs for companies. He says one of the biggest problems is to get employees to take part.

The most popular thing for companies to do is to offer financial incentives. For example, workers might save money on their health insurance if they get health counseling or promise not to smoke.

Mr. Powell says financial incentives like these can get employees to do something once or twice. But he says they are not very effective at getting someone to make long-term changes in the way they live.

Companies also have to be careful or they could get into trouble with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC is a federal agency that enforces laws against discrimination.

Chris Kuczynski is a lawyer there. He says wellness programs must be voluntary. Employees must be able to choose whether to take part. And, even if they do take part, they must be able to choose whether to give private information about their health.

But Mr. Kuczynski says there is a question that his agency has not fully answered. At what point do employees start to feel like they are being forced to join a wellness program?

CHRIS KUCZYNSKI: "We have said, or the office I work for, the office of legal counsel, has said in some informal discussion letters, if you deny someone health insurance who doesn’t participate in a wellness program, that's going too far."

Many companies try to create a culture of wellness. They try to make healthy living part of the job.

At RTI, where Jim Hersey works, yoga is just one part of the wellness program. The company also helps people who want to stop smoking. It offers to test employees for high cholesterol and high blood pressure. During influenza season it offers flu vaccinations.

And every year there is a contest where employees compete to see who can walk the most. Susan Mitchell, an administrator who organizes the yoga classes, explains the contest.

SUSAN MITCHELL: “Our health and wellness committee provided us with pedometers and there was a contest to see how many people could log ten thousand or more steps each day over a certain period. There was a nice website where you could log in your progress. Some people were quite diligent about it. There were prizes. I can’t remember what they were, but many of us did walk around with pedometers for a period of a few weeks.”

REPORTER: “Did you win?”

SUSAN MITCHELL: “No. I didn’t. They don’t give credit for yoga.”

Marci Alboher is an author who writes about workplace issues. She thinks it is mainly good news that employers are paying so much attention to their employees’ health. But she points out that a culture of wellness could leave some people out.

MARCI ALBOHER: “If we started seeing less fit employees or those with chronic illnesses or aging employees discriminated against in the workplace because they’re not thought of as as vigorous, that’s the potential danger I would say.”

And what if an employee has had a genetic test showing a risk that the person might get sick in the future?

In two thousand eight Congress passed the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. This law bars employers from basing employment decisions on genetic information. It also bars insurance companies from using genetic information to deny coverage or charge high rates.

Another law, the Americans With Disabilities Act, prevents discrimination because of a disability -- including, in some cases, obesity. But government lawyer Chris Kuczynski says no federal law bars discrimination based purely on lifestyle decisions.

He says companies can legally hire or fire people based on things like how often they exercise or whether they smoke. Yet even if it is legal, business researcher Ann Mirabito says the threat of dismissal may not be very effective.

ANN MIRABITO: “We found that the most successful programs are offered from a spirit of generosity and respect for the dignity of employees. That participation is voluntary. Participation is encouraged with incentives, but those incentives are carrots rather than sticks.”

In other words, the programs reward employees rather than punish them.

Melody Arbella teaches those yoga classes that Jim Hersey and some of his fellow workers take. Ms. Arbella started her yoga business several years ago. She mostly expected to teach people in their homes. During the recession, though, she found that fewer individuals could afford the classes. But more companies were interested in yoga classes for their employees.

MELODY ARBELLA: “I have seen, with the turn of the economy, when I first started my business, I really, it was like eighty percent private clients so I was going to people’s homes in the mornings, teaching yoga, and then I’d drive off and go to another client, teach yoga. And I had a few companies then. But then a couple years ago, with the turn, now my business is like eighty percent corporate, twenty percent in-home private. So it’s totally flip-flopped with the recession we had and just still the state of where we are.”

Workplace writer Marci Alboher has seen the same trend. She says health care is expected to be one of the most promising areas of employment in the next few years. As part of that, company wellness programs could be a growth industry.

MARCI ALBOHER: “That’s an interesting new model for employment and an interesting new way that wellness is going to probably infiltrate the work environment.”

Our program was written by Kelly Nuxoll and produced by Brianna Blake. What do you think of employee wellness programs? Give us your comments, and read what other people are saying, at voaspecialenglish.com or on Facebook at VOA Learning English. I'm Barbara Klein.

And I'm Steve Ember. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.


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