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20 businesses strive for workplace wellness to lower costs, boost productivity

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Healthy 2016 logo -- La Crosse Tribune

More than 20 La Crosse County companies and organizations are doing some heavy lifting not only to improve their employees’ health but also to earn a Well Workplace Award by April 30, 2018.

The bonus for all is the potential to reduce health insurance premiums and health care costs all around the table.

If they reach the pinnacle as Well Workplaces, the county itself could receive a Well County designation from the Wellness Council of America, joining the ranks of Milwaukee and the Fox Valley, among others in Wisconsin.

Those involved in the Well County La Crosse — Building Better Workplaces initiative are not only the usual suspects — the big dogs that have earned their wellness chops, such as Logistics Health Inc./Riverside Corporate Wellness, with its state-of-the art exercise center, wellness programs and other employee incentives; Kwik Trip, with its own employee clinic and health perks; and, of course, the Coulee region’s two major health systems — but also smaller entities such as The Ultimate Salon and Spa in Onalaska; Bronston Chiropractic/Care Clinic, which has five locations; Great Rivers United Way, headquartered in Onalaska; and Dahl Automotive, among others.

The county drive is not, by any means, the only endeavor to help employers nudge workers to become healthier. For example, YMCA’s Workplace Wellness program enlists more than 50 businesses and organizations, including many that also are participating in the Well County La Crosse venture.

Program could reach 18,000 workers

Participants in the quest account for about 18,000 employees in the county, with some taking advantage of Wisconsin Department of Health Services Workplace Wellness Program Grants for businesses with fewer than 50 employees.

Perhaps underscoring the passion for the task is the fact that co-chairwomen of the initiative’s steering committee are executives at Gundersen Health System and Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare, which normally might be regarded as rivals.

“It’s a very vigorous process,” Sarah Havens said of the three-year path to earn the designations, including identifying health needs, interventions and outcomes.

On the employers’ side, the effort fosters wellness programs to enhance the workers’ health, safety and well-being, said Havens, who directs Gundersen’s Community and Preventive Care Services Department and is co-chairwoman of Well County with Lori Freit-Hammes, health promotion director at Mayo-Franciscan.

From the workers’ perspective, “they realize ‘my employer is concerned about me,'” Havens said.

“You want employees to be excited about what is going on at the workplace,” Havens said.

“We’re at work eight hours a day,” which is more waking time than some people spend with their loved ones, she said, adding that employees tend to share healthy habits learned at work with their families.

More water, fewer sugary drinks

Those habits might include drinking water instead of sugary drinks, eating fresh fruits and vegetables, using stairs instead of elevators and buying affordable foods and fixing lunches at home to take to work, she said.

“Many of us have sedentary jobs, and, if you’ve been sitting for an hour, it’s a good idea to get up and move,” Havens said, noting that Gundersen computers are programmed to pop up just such a reminder at intervals the workers choose.

Some companies have opted for “walking meetings,” she said. “Walking meetings would be more popular for smaller businesses, or smaller groups, where they walk and talk and get business done.”

Noting the importance of mental health in addition to physical health, she said, “Companies should encourage employees to do more things during the day that are uplifting for the spirit.”

Along those lines, employers also should “make the work environment a safe place if people are depressed or can’t cope with stress,” Havens advised.

“As we create these programs, we need parameters to give everybody options. We can’t force the alternatives,” she said. “What may be of interest to one employer may be of no interest to another.”

The essential element, Freit-Hammes said, is “to bring employers together to share in the knowledge and collective effort to make positive lifestyle changes. We know that, in order to create a culture of wellness, we must have awareness.”

Health strikes a chord

Freit-Hammes marched to the beat of a different drummer back in the day, when she was a music major in college, until exposure to the health field struck a chord with her.

“I knew in my belly that this was something I wanted to do with the rest of my life — focus on wellness and not sickness,” she said. “I have had this passion for 25 years and devoted my entire career to workplace wellness.”

Employers did not always appreciate the fact that workers’ health and productivity are tied intimately, partly because there was not any data to support that position, said Freit-Hammes, who has a master’s of public health in community health education from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

“In the ’80s, a lot of things felt good, were fun and made sense, but we didn’t have the data and followed a shotgun approach,” she said.

“For several years, employers were caught on measuring return on investment … but return on investment is impossible to measure unless you’re a big business where you can measure high risk to low risk,” she said.

“Many employers now want to have a better way of containing health care costs and be more productive,” she said, adding that “healthy employees are more productive employees, with less absenteeism.”

Previous initiatives took a Band-Aid approach that shifted costs to employers “but never got down to the root cause for why employees aren’t healthy. Fifty percent of chronic conditions are because of poor lifestyles and behaviors we are most likely to have control over.

“If you can help employees get healthy, you can save tens of thousands of dollars in health care costs and avoid chronic conditions,” Freit-Hammes said.

“LHI and Riverside Corporate Wellness have been doing this for a long time,” she said.

Now, through the Well County La Crosse initiative, “we’re offering mentors to companies that are just starting,” she said.

Healthy employees more productive

Connie Peter, owner of The Ultimate Salon and Spa, attributes her own passion for workplace wellness to rubbing elbows with Freit-Hammes, who said Well County is geared toward helping such smaller firms add rigor to programs they already may have.

“For us, one of the smallest (fewer than 25 employees), the biggest form is to move more and increase water intake” while decreasing sugary drinks and caffeine, as well as being aware of all the additives in food, Peter said.

“It’s almost crazy what little things can do,” she said.

The habits of her employees in their early to late 20s contrasted with “my own personal lifestyle of a woman in her mid-50s, I watched too many young people struggle with sleep” and other health issues.

Peter credited Freit-Hammes with instilling the value of helping employees become healthier and more productive, with fewer sick days, which Peter said is particularly important in service industries.

“For me, it becomes second nature and part of who we are,” Peter said.

The Insurance Center in Onalaska has incorporated a variety of simple measures such as “healthy potlucks,” a newsletter with exercise tips, Tasty Tuesdays once a month focusing on healthy foods and Workout Wednesdays with videos, yoga and other activities, said Kari Schaller, an administrative assistant in the center’s Human Resources Department.

Passport to Wellness

The center, with about 130 employees in 13 locations, including 50 in Onalaska, has a Passport to Wellness program in which employees earn points for completing health challenges.

“We have a stress challenge that encourages employees to figure out what causes stress and how to cope,” she said. “Our business is so sedentary, and employees are so busy they don’t get up and move” so the center’s wellness efforts encourage exercise.

“I am hoping to get more participation, but I think we’re on the right track,” Schaller said.

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