Wellness gets a boost from employers

Each flu season, nearly 111 million workdays are lost due to the flu, according to online information provided by flu.gov. That’s equal to about $7 million per year in sick days and lost productivity.

Staying healthy is no small matter for employees and employers. In Homer, employers, both large and small, are finding ways to encourage employee wellness.


City of Homer

Since November 2012, the city of Homer has offered a pedometer-based wellness program.

“It was a way to start encouraging employees and their spouses to live a healthier lifestyle, and to help, in the long-run, to bring down health insurance costs,” said Andrea Peterson, director of human resources for the city. 

The program is voluntary with “wellness champions” chosen in each department to help motivate participants.

“We do a lot of different challenges with the website and internally, who can get the most active minutes, who can get the most steps or who participates in different events,” said Peterson. “Sometimes we put on our own Turkey Trot and we’ve done our own Shamrock Shuffle. We’ll all meet at the Spit and, as long as you show up and walk, you can walk as little or go as far as you want.”

Pedometers issued to participants are free, but a replacement, in case one is lost or destroyed, costs $24.99.

The program includes five different levels of achievable measurements.

“You can earn up to 100 health miles a day. That’s either walking 30,000 steps — they say 10,000 is five miles — so that’s about 15 miles, or if you do 45 active minutes a day you get 100 health miles,” said Pederson. 

Achieving 6,000 health miles means progressing from the first to second level and receiving a $50 prize, taxable income included in the employee’s paycheck. The fifth level has a 36,000 health mile requirement and offers a $150 prize. 

“I’m fairly active and it takes me almost an entire year to get to level five,” said Peterson.

“It’s amazing how many employees that you would never think would get really motivated are motivated,” said Peterson who has $20,000 in her budget to have the program managed by Richard Branson’s company, Virgin Health, and offer incentives. 


South Peninsula Hospital

South Peninsula Hospital encourages employees’ wellness in several ways. For starters, there’s a 50 percent reimbursement up to a $400 annual limit on activities such as memberships or participation fees for approved weight loss programs, smoking cessation clinics, nutrition consultations, community recreation-sponsored exercise-fitness programs and classes, swimming and skating punch cards, and health club memberships.

In addition to the reimbursement, the Choose Health program includes challenges coordinated by Gayle Claus, the hospital’s employee health nurse, with support from an employee wellness committee. The goal of a recent challenge was to engage in 150 minutes of any form of exercise per week, track daily water consumption and complete six weekly health education requirements. Rather than monetary incentives, participants are awarded items such as stainless steel water bottles and sports apparel.

The Choose Health program offers an on-line opportunity for employees to individually set their own wellness goals and monitor their progress. A smart phone app makes the program easy to access.  Drinking enough water? Eating enough fruits and vegetables? The site helps answer those questions. It makes it possible to track daily weight gains and losses and calorie intake, and provides tips on such topics as stress management and the availability of wellness workshops.
The hospital began subscribing to the Choose Health program two years ago. An annual subscription is $19,000.

“Prevention and wellness are proven to improve the quality of life and decrease health-care costs,” said Ferraro. “Both of these lead to a more stable hospital workforce and organization.”

While it is too soon to tell if the hospital’s program is having the desired results, anecdotal feedback from the 130 enrolled employees — about a third of the hospital’s workforce — makes it evident the program is being used.

“We will not even evaluate until the third year is up, and even then it will be too soon to see trends,” said Ferraro. “It will only show participation levels.”


Kenai Peninsula Borough

and KPB School District

Stormy Brown, human resource director for the Kenai Peninsula Borough, said the borough has not formalized a wellness program for its employees, but does participate in health fairs.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District does offer employees a voluntary online-based wellness program, however. It includes bi-monthly challenges via the website, according the KPBSD spokesperson Pegge Erkeneff.

The program began Jan. 1, 2008, includes all employees enrolled in the district’s health plan and costs $1.52 per employee per month. 

“We average about 400 participants per challenge out of approximately 1,240 total eligible employees,” said Erkeneff.

Surveys filled out by participating employees after every challenge help determine the effectiveness of the program by providing feedback on weight and inches lost or whether their behaviors have changed as a result of taking part in the challenge.

“In addition, all employees can receive a pool pass for lap swim that can be used at any KPBSD school pool,” said Erkeneff. 

In an effort to help keep employees safe during winter months, as well as decreasing workers’ compensation claims for slips, trips and falls, the district issued ice cleats to each employee last fall.

“It is our hope that all employees will be using these cleats as they travel to and from work and across the district,” said Erkeneff.


Homer Electric Association

Begun in the mid 1980s, HEA’s wellness program benefits employees, as well as the employer.

“It actually originated as a basis of discounting the health insurance premiums,” said Beth Wythe, HEA’s human resource director, of the 6 percent premium reduction, a portion of which is reinvested in incentives for employees.

“For instance, if they have a health club membership, we reimburse up to $30 a month,” said Wythe. 

HEA also provides an annual in-house health fair each year, complete with a phlebotomist to do basic blood screenings with expenses paid through HEA’s insurance program.

“Then we usually try to do some fun in-house program to get people moving, like a walking thing or ‘biggest loser’ competitions, incentives for getting out to walk 30 minutes a day, keeping track of it, turning it in and then a drawing for some kind of prize,” said Wythe.

Incentives in the program, which is part of the employees’ health insurance plan, are done twice a year. A health newsletter is distributed with employee payroll once a month.

About 40 of HEA’s 160 employees participate in the program. For on-site health fairs with blood draws, the participation rate increases to about 70 percent.

“It just depends on the situation, the time of year and schedules,” said Wythe. “It’s hard to get people to participate during the summer. They’re more inclined to get out and be active.”

HEA ensures healthy snacks are provided at company meetings. In addition to traditional chips and candy bars, healthy snacks also are available in on-site vending machines.

“The objective is to reduce lost time due to illness and injury at work,” said Wythe of the emphasis on employee wellness. Toward that end, HEA also provides hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes to encourage employees to wipe down their work areas, door handles and stair railings.

“It’s not a common thing for us to have that ravaging of flu going through the building,” said Wythe. “Not that it doesn’t happen, but 10 years ago the occurrence was much higher than it is now. It’s heightened people’s awareness of personal health. … We want employees to be here, be healthy and be safe while they’re doing their job.”


Bay Welding Services

It isn’t just big businesses helping employees stay healthy. Bay Welding, with a workforce of about 20, is encouraging wellness with the help of Mary Jo Cambridge. Owner of Alaska Training Room, Cambridge offers supervised circuit training.

“My wife, Theresa, was going there and then we decided to do it together and (Cambridge) suggested a corporate account was an option since she knew we managed Bay Welding,” said Eric Engebretsen. “I did a little poll of our employees and there seemed a reasonable amount of interest.”

For the five Bay Welding employees that regularly participate, Cambridge offers a $50 monthly membership discount at no cost to Bay Welding.

“It’s a way to help promote a healthy lifestyle for our employees,” said Engebretsen.

This is just one of several local businesses that take advantage of Cambridge’s corporate discount. 

“I want everybody to afford it,” said Cambridge. “Think of the money they are saving when their employees are healthy, not calling in sick, getting injured on the job, costing the business claims in workman’s comp. Everybody wins. It’s been nice to do this.”

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.