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Companies Become "Fit-Friendly" for Health and Economic Benefits

Chris Bolt

A number of Central New York employers provide incentives, programs and facilities so their employees can be healthier. 

Eight were recognized by the American Heart Association with their Platinum-level Award for being a “Fit-Friendly Worksite.”

When people come to work here at POMCO in Eastwood they have health benefits on their minds for the company’s clients, as a third party health care administrator.  But they might not go right to their desks.

Credit Chris Bolt/WAER News
POMCO in Eastwood one of the companies honored for helping employees get and stay healthy.

  POMCO has a workout room right on site.

Human Resources Director Erica Dougherty says people work out and take offered classes during the work day, and before and after work. 

"We actually just expanded it a little bit and added some changing rooms for our employees. Down here, we actually have a couple full bathrooms and showers for employees, and we actually just added a new treadmill and some more weights, so we're expanding this. Our employees are using this primarily in the morning, and my office happens to be above the gym, so I hear it all. [It's used] in the morning, lunch breaks, evenings. We have a lot of activity down here with our employees." 

The wellness goes much further with challenges that can involve groups working toward prizes and even help with things such as smoking cessation and assisting with an employee’s chronic health problem.

"It could be something like diabetes, high blood pressure - any type of chronic condition that exists. Maybe it's a short-term condition that the employee needs help with, but that's also a benefit we offer to our employees." 

 POMCO offered biometric screenings for workers to see their blood pressure, cholesterol and overall health.  Dougherty figures about 70-percent of employees take part in some wellness activity.


Credit Chris Bolt
The gym at Platinum "Fit Friendly Worksite" Welch Allyn is managed by an outside company. Facilities such as these could attract prospective employees.

  At Welch Allyn in Skaneateles they also have an onsite workout facility for employees. It’s run by an outside company, Health Fitness Corp.  Welch Allyn also invites employees to participate in challenges and contests – some that tie in with fundraisers for groups such as the Heart Association.  An outside firm Red Brick does health assessments for people to track wellness. And like POMCO, Welch Allyn CEO Steve Meyer has added a financial incentive to get or stay healthy.

"In fact, our employees earn a certain amount of discount off their healthcare by being involved in some of these activities. In fact, I'm a proud owner of a Fit Bit bracelet, here. I started wearing this at the start of this year. It connects automatically to a nice application, which then also connects to Red Brick." 

It goes a step further. On-site nurse practitioner Nancy Parsons has had a hand in what’s offered in the company’s cafeteria.

"But, you know, I've kind of removed the potato chips and put in the baked chips. Okay, so there's still chips there. You know, kind of subtle things - reduce the size of the hamburger-  that people don't really recognize. Although I do get people coming up to me and saying 'It's your fault we don't have potato chips and cookies down there.' We reduced the size of soda cans from the 20 oz [cans] to the 12 [oz cans]. You know, little things like that, so that you're not totally taking away everything, there's still a lot of choices. But what they prepare there for the meals are very good and very healthy." 

American Heart Association  Board Chair Kathy Garafalo says wellness-oriented companies can even manipulate food prices to nudge workers’ habits.

"The foods that are healthy cost a little bit less than the junks foods. So, if you're going in and figuring out am I going to have that double cheeseburger or a maybe turkey sandwich, and the turkey sandwich costs a third of the cheeseburger, you might tend towards those [healthier foods]. So, that's something people do, too." 

Both Welch Allyn and POMCO were awarded the American Heart Association’s Platinum status as a Fit Friendly Workplace.  Overall, Garafalo finds larger and mid-size companies are more likely to have fit-friendly practices and programs and incentives.  It’s considered a benefit - one that might even help attract prospective employees.  And there are indications it’s financially wise as well.

"Well, you know, there have been a million studies done in the health and wellness area, and most of them will show a return on investment. For a dollar spent on a wellness or a fitness program, there's like a two to seven dollar return on investment. Which, I can't get that money on the stock market, can you?  It almost universally shows you get a very very good return on investments. So, you know, I think it's definitely something companies feel is worth their while." 

Research is not entirely clear that workplace wellness has all the benefits of fewer days off, better attentiveness at work, reduced health costs and the workers’ overall health improvement.  The American Journal of Health reported three dollars spent on wellness programs only produced one dollar in medical savings.  The study also found health gains by participants were short-lived.  But a RAND Corporation survey disputes those results, finding health improvements were sustained for four years on things such as exercise frequency, smoking behavior and weight control.  Johnson and Johnson research showed the return on investment of at least three times money spent on wellness.  It also found the best programs cut lost work days a whopping 80 percent and cut workers compensation 50 percent.  Welch Allyn’s Steve Meyer says, gains aside, it’s the right thing to do.

"We're a healthcare company first and foremost. And, I think, as such, we in some ways have an obligation to ensure that we as an employees of a company have awareness of our own health. At the end of the day, it's really up to me and you to do that. What we're trying to do is encourage [awareness]." 

And Nurse Practitioner Nancy Parsons notes a positive change in focus about health.

"So, there has been surveys Red Brick sends out [and one of the questions shows] people are more aware because of the programs we have on site. Not everybody wants to participate; you know, there are people who are like "No, leave me alone." But, generally, it's definitely raised awareness as a whole, as a company." 

Credit Chris Bolt
Outside of places to workout, companies like Welch Allyn have also implemented programming such as healthier food options and discounted heathcare for wellness activity participation to encourage wellness.

  Parsons has seen concrete financial benefits as well. Welch Allyn saved 30-percent in health costs through overall health programs.  POMCO’s Erica Dougherty adds workers just might be expecting wellness programs and opportunities. 

"It's so popular now - wellness.  You hear about it everywhere you go. I mean, we have a fitness center; we have a wellness classes on site. There's a lot of different things we've ingrained into our culture that's really a selling point for us, and I believe, help us bring us, bring in qualified candidates to our company." 

Local firms CX-Tec, Dermody Burke and Brown, Lockheed Martin, MVP Healthcare, Price Shopper and TERACAI were the other local companies honored with the American Heart Association’s platinum status.  A dozen others earned gold status.  They had to meet 6 criteria out of a range of things.  The platinum winners went on to quantify gains they saw in how many people participated, investments made in healthy activities or results achieved in health or financial benefits.

These standouts all part of a growing list of companies seeking healthier employees, healthier attitudes in the workplace, or a healthier bottom line.

Chris Bolt, Ed.D. has proudly been covering the Central New York community and mentoring students for more than 30 years. His career in public media started as a student volunteer, then as a reporter/producer. He has been the news director for WAER since 1995. Dedicated to keeping local news coverage alive, Chris also has a passion for education, having trained, mentored and provided a platform for growth to more than a thousand students. Career highlights include having work appear on NPR, CBS, ABC and other news networks, winning numerous local and state journalism awards.