How corporations help employees fight stress and stay healthy

Wellness at work: how corporations help employees fight stress and stay healthy

Marjory Roberts


How corporations help employees fight stress and stay healthy.

Turned lean, mean and often sour by Wall Street raiders and greenmailers, many American corporations are now slashing “frills” such as improved work environments and community service. The loss is serious. The movement toward enlightened management since World War II has added the fire of idealism to the search for more profitable work.

Only one idealistic concept still strikes sparks and sometimes fire in management–programs dealing with “health promotion” or the deeper notion of “healthy companies.” A random sample of organizations with 50 or more employees found that nearly two-thirds had at least one program promoting health, with an average of two per company.

And they seem to be on the rise. According to the National Survey of Worksite Health Promotion Activities–reported in the January 1989 American Journal of Public Health–“greater than 50% of the activities were in place for fewer than five years,” indicating the “growing prevalence” of wellness programs. The most common were, in order, smoking cessation, health-risk assessment, back-problem prevention and care, and stress management.

Such programs often produce savings in medical costs, lower absenteeism, higher productivity–and something more. “If a health-promotion program catches fire, it can lead to the belief that an institution can be managed in a way that’s health-enhancing,” says Willis “Bill” Goldbeck, founder of the Washington Business Group on Health, a national organization of health-minded corporations.

While the press has focused on the money-saving question, most successful wellness programs start for other reasons. AT&T launched its Total Life Concept, TLC, because the pending antitrust breakup of Ma Bell caused middle managers extreme stress even before it started. When TLC restored morale in test sites around the country, aerobic dancers soon filled the corridors out at head-quarters in Basking Ridge, NJ.

Stress-control programs often connect individual employee health to the healthy company ideal. Because of the candor encouraged by encounter groups, the programs can make executives acutely aware that they are the chief source of on-the-job stress. Research nailing down this uncomfortable fact has gained new attention recently because of a rapid rise in employee damage suits for stress-related diseases. In California, for example, such suits increased five-fold between 1982 and 1986.

Companies usually get going on health, reports Goldbeck, when one key person gets fired up–often the chief executive officer. Once a fitness-minded executive makes it to the top, he or she becomes even more committed to staying in the condition that helped along the way. Or let a CEO suffer a heart attack, some say, and the corporate health program gets a high priority.

Teaming Up for Health A group of 14 corporations, mostly out west, have been working together on wellness programs in a unique research and development effort headed by Kenneth R. Pelletier, associate clinical professor at the University of California School of Medicine in San Francisco. Pelletier got pioneering health executives from each company into regular meetings where they trade information, select experiments for one to try and report to others, and swap information on vendors who supply services.

At the Bank of America, for example, corporate-health vice president Clark E. Kerr has developed the “nurse nag” form of smoking cessation program. If a would-be quitter gets encouragement from his doctor, research shows, he’s more likely to make it. But doctor time is expensive, so Kerr arranged for a company nurse to call smokers trying to stop, and got a 22% success rate.

Other corporations in the pioneer consortium have developed expertise in various health and mental health areas. Lockheed and First Nationwide Bank first conducted a three-year program of screening for hypertension, then offered everything from relaxation exercises to diet and stress management to bring down blood pressure. Chevron has worked on smoking and AIDS education, as has Wells Fargo. Xerox and Apple have been heavy into fitness and exercise. Hewlett-Packard, impressed by the theory that fitness feeds imagination, has been working on all nine areas the consortium is investigating.

Moving Beyond the Workplace Several major companies have gone out into the community to help programs that respond to the needs of their present employees and future ones now in school. For instance, Procter & Gamble president John Pepper personally leads a pilot program aimed at solving the drop-out problem in the school district with the highest dropout rate in Cincinnati, P&G’s hometown. Pepper is also working with the Community Chest agencies to see what they can do for drug prevention, athletics and fitness, and family support. The plan is to develop a model program that can be used at other schools in the Cincinnati community and beyond.

Foundations are also helping to forge the connection between business and health. Alvin R. Tarlov, president of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, is developing ways of mobilizing health resources in the poorer Southern states. In Tennessee, for example, his staff is working with political, labor and business leaders to identify the resources available for health education and care for the low-income people often left out of corporate efforts.

In addition, the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion is developing a clearinghouse for information on health programs for small companies, funded by Congress last fall.

So many efforts in so many directions sounds like nobody knows exactly what to do. And that’s right. In a concern as complex as developing a healthy work force in healthy communities, it takes a thousand different answers to fit the subcultures and varieties of need and capacity. Historically, that’s the way this country has gotten something useful done. Such a long-term investment in workers and communities, Goldbeck says, is “sure a change over three or four years ago. It’s even beginning to influence the way companies develop their management. Those who lead in these ventures have made their ideas work.” Read on for some examples.

Bonne Bell: Dress Is Optional This beauty-aids company bends office rules and adds financial incentives to promote good health among its employees. President Jess Bell brought the spirit of fitness to Bonne Bell. After sponsoring ski and tennis events throughout the 1960s, he started encouraging his employees to ride bikes to work and arranged for them to purchase the bikes at cost. Today, the company sponsors races such as the Cleveland Heart-A-Thon and the Cystic Fibrosis Benefit Run.

In 1976, Bonne Bell began its first official fitness program, building tennis and volleyball courts, a track and shower and locker facilities. The company also constructed exercise rooms at both of its office locations in Ohio. To get and keep employees interested, Bonne Bell has set up generous incentives: Workers can use the facilities for free, they get an extra 30 minutes at lunch if they want to exercise, and workout clothes are acceptable attire after lunch. Employees can also purchase running suits and shoes at discount prices. Its newest incentive promises a check for $250 to employees who exercise four days a week from January to June.

Bonne Bell also pays $250 to employees who stop smoking for six months and $5 for each pound (up to 50) a worker loses over six months. Going back to bad health habits costs double: The company requires people who start smoking again to give $500 to the corporate charitable foundation. For every pound gained back within six months of its loss, that donation is $10.

The company has noted many positive changes since the program began. Records of sick days, for example, show much less absenteeism. “Everyone enjoys it,” says Connie Schafer, a spokesperson for Bonne Bell. “We’ve seen people start to take care of themselves.” And, she adds, many employees–especially Jess Bell–wouldn’t miss Wednesday morning early-bird runs.

L.L. Bean: From Backs to Back-Packing Bean employees may have caught the fitness bug from president Leon Gorman, L.L. Bean’s grandson and an active outdoorsman. For years, Bean has encouraged a healthy dose of the great outdoors, loaning employees canoes, tents, sleeping bags and other recreational gear free of charge.

Now, the health and fitness program keeps three fitness rooms open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the week; one of them reopens from 11 p.m. until 2 a.m. for second-and third-shift workers. Bean also rewards the physically fit. Members of the running club who log 200 miles receive long-sleeved T-shirts. Special exercise classes, which cost $20 or less, offer gift certificates to those who attend 80% of the classes.

In addition to health screening and fitness opportunities, employees can take lessons in ballroom dancing and cross-country skiing for $15 per person. Or they can learn about lower-back pain–on company time. Bean will split the time with employees who want to study stress reduction or first aid.

Though the company has not formally measured improvements in employee health, it believes enough in its health and fitness program to spend $200,000 a year on it. “We think people who are fit are healthier and more productive,” says Ted Rooney, manager of employee health and safety.

AT&T: A New Kind of TLC This company’s Total Life Concept (TLC) program began in 1983 with ambitious goals and an antistress agenda. Former corporate medical director Dorothea Johnson helped launch TLC at several test sites. Some 2,400 people took part in the first program, and after following their progress for one year, AT&T found substantial improvements in health and morale: Participants had reduced their overall cholesterol levels by 10%, and 78% of the men and women who wanted to lower their blood pressure managed at least a 10% decrease. Of those who joined smoking-cessation courses, 80% quit; half were still nonsmokers after 12 months. And, says Molly McCauley, program director of TLC, “people’s attitudes changed. We sent a message to employees that said, `We care about your health and well-being.’ They got the message.”

Today, some 80,000 employees have volunteered for TLC. First, they take stock of their health with free blood-pressure and cholesterol screenings. Then they choose among various lifestyle-change courses that deal with blood-pressure, cholesterol, stress, cancer and the like.

Some courses are free. For others, costs depend on the facilities and resources required. Since most people need encouragement after they’ve quit smoking or started exercising, “graduates” get together in support groups to help each other make the changes last.

AT&T managers seem to take the TLC motto–“A healthy workplace makes good business sense”–seriously. The company spends between $45 and $50 annually for each employee in the program. And when corporate funds got tight recently, regional area managers came up with the funds locally to keep TLC growing.

Safeway: Fitness and Fun About 12 years ago, Safeway’s wholesale bakery plant in Clackamas, OR, was plagued with high accident rates, too much absenteeism and tardiness, low morale and a steady stream of grievances. After tackling safety and sanitation issues, the company turned its attention–with more resolve than money–to personal well-being.

Employees first searched for a fitness facility off company grounds, with discouraging results. “The fitness centers we looked at only wanted a monetary commitment,” says plant manager Bob Jacobson. “They weren’t interested in promoting healthy living.” Instead, volunteers built their own fitness center from the plant’s old 244-square foot sanitation supply room. Members now pay $8 per month to use a 5,000 square-foot facility. A full-time fitness director oversees the voluntary program, Buns on the Run.

Jacobson also has several mandatory courses for employees to attend during the work day. In a humor class, for example, “adults learn that it’s OK to play. They learn to laugh at themselves,” Jacobson explains, and to rid their vocabularies of “unproductive” words. “We had a slogan one week,” he says, “that went, `Don’t let anybody should on you.'” They also avoid “I’ll try,” because that presupposes failure. A class in communications skills teaches employees how to handle conflict.

Jacobson estimates that the wellness program costs about $5,000 yearly. Statistics say it’s worth every penny: Lost work days from accidents have been almost eliminated; tardiness and absenteeism has decreased by more than 60%; union grievances are down by 95%; and discrimination cases have virtually disappeared. “People here have committed themselves to leading a healthy lifestyle,” says Jacobson.

Sara Lee: The Local Touch Because Sara Lee is a diverse conglomerate of more than 30 companies employing 70,000 people in the United States alone, “we tailor-make the program for each division,” says corporate medical director Donald Hayes. The common denominator is a 10-year-old cancer prevention program, Health Caring, which offers free annual cancer screening exams to employees 40 years of age and older. After the initial examinations are done, doctors and nurses provide follow-up advice.

But for the most part, says Hayes, wellness is defined in local terms. In country areas, for example, Sara Lee companies have taken advantage of open space to construct outdoor fitness trails. In cities, where space is tight, making it hard to build exercise facilities right on company grounds, Sara Lee picks up part of the membership fee for employees to join local health clubs.

At the six Sara Lee companies based in Winston-Salem, NC, where 80% of the employees are women, wellness programming centers around women’s health issues. “We asked the employees what their health concerns were,” says Hayes, “and then we put together a series of workshops on prenatal care, reproductive health, nutrition, physical conditioning, stress management and preventive strategies for avoiding diseases such as osteoporosis.”

Employees can take the classes free of charge and partially on company time. “The whole business of addressing women’s health is relatively new in a workplace setting,” notes Hayes. “The employees are receiving the effort wonderfully well.”

Johnson & Johnson: Life, Lunch and Learning Live for Life, J&J’s 11-year-old health promotion program, is free of charge, voluntary and available to 33,000 U.S. employees. Health screening gives employees an idea of how healthy they are. J&J then offers a number of 8-week courses to improve weak spots. The company also holds one-hour lunch seminars on topics such as

biofeedback. And almost all company sites have fitness facilities open in work hours.

Johnson & Johnson, perhaps more than any other company, has documented the financial payoff. During Live for Life’s first five years, hospital costs at J&J companies with the program went up only one-third as much as they did in J&J companies without the program, and absenteeism was 18% less.

There were other health gains early on: From 1980 to 1982, employees at Live for Life branches more than doubled their strenuous physical activity, and 23% who were smoking in 1980 had stopped by 1982. Overall, the group also lowered blood pressure, weight and stress levels.

Employee enthusiasm for the program is harder to measure but just as evident. “They’re very positive about it,” says Live for Life’s corporate director Mel Benjamin. “In attitude surveys, it’s always the number one-rated benefit.”

Honeywell: Better Health Pays Off “If we are a company of healthy people, then we will be a healthy company,” says Honeywell’s chairman and CEO, James Renier. Honeywell starts with appraisals of cholesterol, blood pressure and body fat, usually at no charge. The company also offers courses, costing from $5 to $50, on stress management, smoking cessation, fitness and nutrition.

Special events include annual health fairs featuring everything from proper lifting techniques to lessons in healthy cooking. In Freeport, IL, nearly 600 employees have learned CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation). The company also operates 40 programs to treat workers with alcohol or drug dependency problems.

The pay off: Honeywell estimates that, nationally, large corporations experienced an average 14% increase in the cost of health-care services last year–compared to just 4% at major Honeywell sites. And surveys of employees over the last three years show a substantial boost to morale after they get involved in a health promotion activity. With such encouraging results, Honeywell upped its monetary commitment to wellness–from $15 per employee in 1986 to $30 in 1987 and 1988.

Recently, the company began to address emotional and psychological concerns. “Employees want to know how to pick a nursing home or prepare for retirement,” says Shellie Martin, corporate manager for health communication.

COPYRIGHT 1989 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group