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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Work Your Butt Off

The Welborn Baptist Foundation’s “Adult Health in the Tri-State, 2008” report presents a dismal picture. The prevalence of heart disease, high blood pressure, and Type 2 diabetes in our area far exceeds national averages; one in three Vanderburgh County residents is obese; only half of employed adults in the Tri-State have jobs that keep them routinely active. The rest are desk jockeys clocking long, sedentary hours — often dotted with sodas, unhealthy snacks, and trips to the fast food drive-through.

Another statistic: The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2009 American Time Use Survey showed that employed adults spent 8.7 hours a day working — more hours than they slept. That investment has in turn has encouraged local companies to invest in their employees by offering corporate health and wellness initiatives. Businesses including Atlas World Group, Flanders Electric, and United Companies acknowledge that while healthy habits are an individual choice, sometimes employees just need a little encouragement. All offer programs such as annual health screenings and risk assessments, weight-loss contests, and exercise and nutrition advice — all free to employees.

At Atlas World Group’s corporate headquarters on the North Side, an on-site fitness center houses exercise equipment and classes held four times weekly. In warm weather, the nearly 400 employees at the facility can head outside and hit the paved one-mile walking track. During chilly months, a handout tracks the walking distance inside the building. “I see a lot of enthusiasm when people are walking,” says Nancy Priebe, vice president of human resources for the transportation and relocation company. “You can be in a conference room and see people doing laps.”

At Flanders Electric, a company providing electric motors and drives around the world, the approximately 650 employees nationwide (400 in Evansville) may participate in a wellness rewards program to earn wellness points that are applied to their annual flex benefits. In 2010, employees who participated to the fullest earned 100 percent of the employee portion of healthcare premiums. The goal, says corporate wellness coordinator Jennifer Wakeland, is holistic well-being: physical, spiritual, nutritional, mental, and financial wellness, plus safety. “People liked that they chose what to do,” says Wakeland, a registered nurse with a master’s degree in exercise physiology. “It wasn’t an assignment. That made (employees) take more ownership in it.”

The company’s vending machines also have undergone a makeover. Baked chips, low-fat dairy products, oatmeal, sugar-free and low-fat snacks, and fruit have replaced more fattening fare. “The company doesn’t want to provide unhealthy food,” Wakeland says, “and then say, ‘Be healthy.’”

At United Companies, a multifaceted financial and transportation services company comprised of United Leasing, Inc.; Professional Transportation, Inc.; and the Romain Automotive Group, wellness programs launched in 2000. “It takes a while to build up trust,” admits Diana Dyson Wilson, a human resources specialist and coordinator of the wellness team at United Companies, which employs 362 in Evansville. “Some were concerned that we would learn their information (from annual screenings). But each year, it gets better and bigger, and people get more engaged.” (The data collected in screenings by a visiting nurse is anonymous, but it helps the wellness team plan quarterly seminars based on employees’ greatest needs: including lowering cholesterol, fighting obesity, and learning the basics of exercise.)

After gathering seven years of statistics comparing United Companies’ medical insurance premium increases against national averages, the company in 2010 alone saved more than $234,000 in gross insurance costs. “We do not look at it as a sacrifice at all,” says Wilson, who adds that wellness programs also are a boon to recruitment and retention efforts. “We look at it as an investment.”

Wakeland, of Flanders Electric, agrees. “Part of our vision and mission is to make this the best place a person can work,” she says. “If we provide this for our employees and they’re engaged, we’re going to continue to see an impact on our bottom line.”

While Atlas doesn’t calculate the precise financial benefits of its health initiatives, Priebe says the company “looks at wellness as a win-win.” Atlas did not reduce its healthcare budget during the recession, and Priebe believes that wellness initiatives have made employees more aware and enthusiastic about their health. “If employees are up and moving,” she says, “we consider that a success.”

All three leaders cite intangible benefits of wellness initiatives such as increased productivity, a decrease in absenteeism, and better morale. In a region that often gets a bad rap for health, “people are talking about wellness,” Wakeland says. “If you see someone lose weight, you say, ‘Well, if he can do it, I’m going to try.’ It’s been motivating for employees to help each other improve.”

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