When it comes to workplace wellness programs, healthy investments yield healthy returns for companies and communities alike

Even 40 years ago, the relationship between health and business in the American consciousness was largely limited to the contents of individual companies’ insurance plans (which were often limited), and the number of sick days employees earned. Health care was the realm of doctors and hospitals, insurance companies—including newly expanding HMOs—and, increasingly, the federal government. It wasn’t until the fitness-crazed mid-1980s, around the same time that Boeing became the largest U.S. conglomerate to ban smoking on company grounds, that the idea of a “healthy” workplace really took off. Boeing’s then-president Malcolm Stamper’s nationally publicized stance that it was an employer’s duty to ensure not just a safe environment, but a healthy environment for employees helped usher in a new national vision of wellness at work.

Today, 56 percent of American companies large and small have documented strategic wellness plans, according to a 2012 survey of 400 U.S. employers performed by OptumHealth, a UnitedHealth Group company. That’s up by 5 percent from 2010 (the year the Affordable Care Act was signed into law), and doesn’t take into account the many employers, particularly smaller organizations, who pursue less formal wellness offerings or programs that go undocumented. Perhaps most significantly, nearly every organization surveyed—a full 88 percent—felt wellness solutions were vital to their company’s benefits packages. Clearly, the concept of wellness in the workplace has been promoted to a permanent position in American business.

Cobb County business is no exception. With the county’s Office of Economic Development tallying nearly 28,500 companies in unincorporated Cobb alone, and hundreds of thousands more in neighboring metro Atlanta and greater Georgia, the local business community presents a wealth of opportunities for implementation and innovation when it comes to workplace wellness programming. Many Cobb companies are taking advantage of the momentum the movement has gained from the current national focus on health care, as well as recent expansions and advances in the workplace wellness market, to develop their own strategic plans. Others have been ahead of the game for years. The ever-shrinking minority that still believes employee health is not worth the investment may want to take a hard look at the competition—and the facts.

Running the Numbers

Research supporting the benefits of a healthier workforce is, perhaps not surprisingly, robust. The most galvanizing data centers on lifestyle factors, key aspects of health that can be managed on a daily basis as part of one’s individual lifestyle. Diet and exercise (the two major lifestyle factors contributing to obesity) and tobacco use top the list for experts in workplace wellness, and for good reason.

“According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, medical costs for people who are obese were $1,429 higher than those of normal weight,” explains Barry Strand, senior HealthWorks consultant for Kaiser Permanente of Georgia. “For tobacco users, employers can expect an additional $3,383 in medical expenses and lost productivity per employee.” For employees with diabetes and high blood pressure, other increasingly common conditions associated with obesity and tobacco use, the statistics are similar. “Obesity costs employers $45 billion annually in medical costs and lost productivity,” says Christopher Dugan, director of corporate communications for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia.

Dugan also points out that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average person spends 53 percent of their waking hours at work. Consider the ubiquitous desk job: In 2011, one study calculated that 80 percent of American jobs were sedentary, or required only very light activity. If the same is true of Cobb’s workforce, that’s an estimated 22,800 workers who sit for six or more hours of every workday—racking up a whopping $14,181,600 in added medical costs. “What’s surprising,” Strand says, “is that for all these serious health conditions [diabetes, heart disease, etc.], the direct costs of care—doctors’ visits, hospital stays and prescriptions—account for only a portion of the total cost of disease. Indirect costs, such as disability and absenteeism, account for the bulk of the costs to employers.”

There’s also presenteeism to take into account. A more recently recognized cost to productivity, presenteeism is defined as underperformance on the job due to an employee coming to work when he or she is not feeling well. Often, employees who are not sick themselves, but who are caring for a family member with a health condition, also become presentees. “A 2009 report found that absenteeism and presenteeism cost employers $2 to $3 for every $1 of direct medical costs, such as health care premiums or pharmacy spending,” Strand notes. “With the national average of combined direct medical costs hovering around $7,000 a year per employee, productivity losses driven by presenteeism could cost employers as much as $21,000 a year, per worker. Plus, studies show that presenteeism affects as many as one in three employees at any one time.”

With such overwhelming empirical support, it’s no wonder so many companies are looking to healthier employees to deliver a healthier bottom line.


Walking the Walk

Lockheed Martin’s Marietta-based Aeronautics Co. is just one of Cobb’s prominent business institutions that is experiencing that positive impact firsthand. Established here more than 60 years ago, the facility now retains 6,800 employees. All of them (as well as Lockheed Martin’s 120,000 employees worldwide) are eligible for the company’s impressive workplace wellness plan.

“LM Healthworks [independent from Kaiser Permanente’s HealthWorks] is a customized, self-funded plan that focuses on prevention and wellness,” explains Stephanie Stinn, spokesperson for Lockheed Martin. “We have several on-site resources to help employees take a proactive approach with their health care, including our medical clinics.” Staffed by licensed clinicians, these on-site Wellness Centers provide free health services—everything from acute care and chronic condition counseling to screenings, wellness education and tobacco cessation support—for all employees, regardless of health care coverage.

The benefits don’t stop there. Walking and running trails, sports fields and an on-site fitness center with instructor-led classes have been added to encourage individual and group recreation. Further motivation and support is offered via company-funded financial incentives tied to participation in a Personal Health Assessment, a physical activity tracking program and available health coaching and conditional management programs. A partnership with Aramark also provides healthy, low-calorie food options for all Lockheed Martin cafeterias across the country.

The companywide investment in such a comprehensive and expansive workplace wellness program is well worth it, Stinn says. “Healthy workers are inherently more productive. This [wellness plan] is good for them personally, as well as for the company’s bottom line and its continued success and viability in the aerospace and defense marketplace.” It’s also extremely effective. You can see Lockheed Martin’s wellness program at work just by visiting the local campus. “It’s not unusual to see groups of employees walking the Marietta site during their lunch hours,” Stinn says, “as well as others who meet before and after work for Crossfit classes or running groups.”

WellStar, which serves a population of 1.3 million residents in five counties, reports similar success with its wellness programs. “Improving health at the workplace is a proven business strategy,” explains Cecelia Wagoner, assistant vice president for corporate and community health at WellStar. “Not only can this be a cost-saving opportunity for business as it relates to the growing cost of health care, but it can also increase engagement and productivity at the workplace.” As one of the county’s largest employers, WellStar is at the forefront of employee wellness. In addition to annual vaccination programs and smoking cessation programs, WellStar employees enjoy a discounted membership rate at WellStar Health Place, a 55,000-square-foot fitness center that consistently ranks as one of Atlanta’s top 10 fitness centers.

There is no question that these investments pay off. “A recent industry study of more than 50 health and wellness programs that included 370,000 employees found a dramatic reduction in sick leave, workers’ compensation claims and overall health costs,” says Dugan. He points to programs like Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s ConditionCare and ComplexCare programs as ways the company is helping members manage health conditions. “We strongly feel that supporting wellness is a critical part of our responsibility to those we serve,” says Dugan.


Weighing the Options

Thanks in part to the widespread success of such programs, the workplace wellness industry is rapidly expanding and advancing the options it can offer to businesses of all sizes. Cobb companies looking to start or improve a workplace wellness plan need look no further than their fellow local businesses for customizable models, resources and support.

Ranked Georgia’s top commercial health care company for eight years running and the largest non-profit health plan in the state, Kaiser Permanente operates multiple medical facilities across Cobb County and metro Atlanta. In addition to more traditional health plans and services, Kaiser Permanente also provides several free resources to employers via businessnet.kp.org, including tools to support produce delivery programs, physical activity plans and health-based group meetings. One such free program, “Maintain, Don’t Gain,” a weight-maintenance challenge for the oft-troublesome holiday season, has proven particularly successful. “Employers who implement ‘Maintain, Don’t Gain’ have reported that 87 percent of participants either lost or maintained their weight throughout the holiday season,” says Strand. Employees who experience such positive results from a company-supported plan are more likely to participate in additional incentives and programs, thus building on their—and their employers’—success.

Another way to engage employees is through the use of incentives, like those built into HealthStart, one of WellStar’s most successful programs, with more than 4,800 team members enrolled. “The HealthStart program includes individual assessments, health coaching and incentives to encourage participation,” explains Wagoner. “HealthStart provides fun and educational events and programs that employees may participate in to support them on their personal wellness journey. This includes our annual employee health and benefit fairs, lunch and learns, a walking program, fitness challenges, weight management programs and more.” Each of the program’s three steps (Health Risk Assessment and Screening, Behavior Modification and Individual Outcomes and Rewards) is worth 100 points. Participants who earn a total of 300 wellness points each year receive a cash payment of $300.

Blue Cross offers similar programs, like Time Well Spent, a web-based resource designed to help employers build a culture of health in the workplace. “It gives you access to communication resources and information to help educate your employees about healthy lifestyle changes,” explains Dugan. Resources include articles, posters, email blasts and healthy recipes and cooking tips.

Participation is the key to a successful workplace wellness program. According to the OptumHealth 2012 survey, companies that have at least one dedicated wellness professional (whose sole job is to promote and manage wellness programs in the workplace) experience an average 54 percent participation rate among eligible employees, as opposed to 45 percent for companies that don’t.

In addition to partnering with corporate wellness service providers and public and private health insurance companies, many local businesses turn to their hometown hospitals for assistance in planning, implementing and maintaining an effective workplace wellness program. Northside Hospital is a leading provider of health services to local citizens and corporate health programs alike. “We commend workplace wellness programs that seek to help employees stay as healthy as possible,” says Russ Davis, Northside’s director of marketing and public relations. “One way in which Northside Hospital supports workplace wellness is through our Corporate & Community Health Solutions program that takes health and wellness screenings directly to employers and their employees across north metro Atlanta.”

With the number and variety of corporate wellness resources keeping pace with rising statistics and success stories touting their benefits, the question facing today’s companies isn’t, “Should we implement a workplace wellness program?”—but, “How?”


Making It Work

Like most strategic goals requiring companywide commitment, successful workplace wellness programming starts at the top. “My first recommendation is to ensure support from management—from the top down,” says Strand. “For a workplace wellness program to be successful, high-level managers must be willing to dedicate resources to running the program and be willing to participate. Middle-level managers must also be on board and allow employees to participate in the programs being offered.” WellStar’s Wagoner also suggests developing a written plan for wellness programs that sets both short- and long-term goals. “[Also], understand financial support for the program is a priority in the planning and execution,” she says.

Employers should also be aware of the major barriers to participation. OptumHealth’s survey confirmed that lack of time, energy and interest topped the list of significant reasons employees choose not to participate or fully engage in wellness offerings. Larger companies and those composed primarily of younger employees are more likely to face such barriers and the common causes behind them: ineffective communication, poor comprehension of benefits and privacy concerns. Consulting trusted industry resources to help navigate the planning and implementation process (for instance, by collecting and analyzing company-specific data or keeping abreast of the latest advances and requirements in the ever-evolving wellness industry) is a good place to start.

As with any goal, the most important step is always the first one. Businesses needn’t limit their concept of workplace wellness to funding, developing and launching a full-blown strategic plan. Simply creating awareness and promoting a culture of health can be a good place to start.

Regardless of approach, the No. 1 priority of any workplace wellness program should be firmly set on people, not on profit. Dr. Whit Campbell, regional managing physician for LM Healthworks, sums up the guiding goal that led Lockheed Martin to create such a comprehensive and highly successful plan for its global company. “The greatest benefit, as I see it, is that the shift to include a focus on prevention and wellness will lead to a healthier, more productive workforce. Our vision is to create employees who are educated health care consumers who take on and maintain behaviors that ultimately will improve their health.”

But one measure of health often follows the other, and investing in employee health often means they are more willing to invest in the company. “We estimate that for each $1 spent on investing in wellness programs, companies can realize a return on investment of $2, in some cases, more,” says Dugan. “Further, when we survey our members, nearly 70 percent report that they have benefitted from our programs and improved their overall health.”

That we all benefit from a healthier workforce—and healthier, happier, more productive families, communities and an entire nation—is the real bottom line.


  1. You are right; those employers, who invest in employees’ health, get healthy returns from them. To run a successful wellness program, participation of employees is the key.

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