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Workplace wellness could be win-win for employees, employers

Silverdale regulars may have noticed some increased walking activity around town earlier this spring, as staff from The Doctors Clinic took to the streets. Physicians and employees participated in a Workplace Walk-Off Challenge, with teams competing against each other for the highest number of steps taken during a four-week period.

Almost 50 percent of the staff participated, focused on the goal of reaching at least 10,000 steps a day. By the time the 40 teams of five people were done, they had walked a cumulative 48 million steps, or approximately 24,000 miles.

“I was thrilled and overwhelmed at how many people participated,” said Kyrsten Wooster, benefits specialist for The Doctors Clinic who oversees wellness. “I think the team component was huge — people wanted to walk with each other, and peer pressure helped a little.”

Wooster said they’ve done other wellness campaigns previously and their success inspired future ideas. She approached Propel Insurance and Premera BlueCross, the clinic’s health insurance providers, and they supplied pedometers to participants. The winning team — which logged 2.1 million steps (or 1,060 miles) — walked away with a trophy and a “golden pedometer.”

“We’re a health and wellness organization so we’re trying to incorporate that into our culture,” Wooster said, adding that some employees also got family members involved while others are still seen wearing pedometers.

“Overall, employee attitude at work has been more positive — what’s better than taking a walk at lunch,” she said. “It’s about being a happier organization.”

Workplace wellness has become one of the focus areas in recent years in the efforts to improve public health and combat chronic disease. It’s an increased topic of discussion as the obesity rates in the United States continue to grow — in 2010, 12 states had obesity prevalence of 30 percent or more, compared with only nine states the year before and none in 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Washington’s rate is at 25.5 percent).

“Health is influenced by the environment we live in, the places we work, live and play,” said Scott Daniels, deputy director for Kitsap Public Health District. “Why would a business person be concerned? Because (wellness) can decrease health care costs, increase productivity and improve staff morale and retention.”

The health district has a smoking cessation program for employers, and is expanding its focus on workplace wellness as part of the 5210 initiative with several community partners (see related story). Daniels said employers could do even simple things as part of their policies, such as supporting physical activities during lunch or providing healthier food choices during meetings.

He noted that one in two people in the United States has a chronic disease, and 75 percent of U.S. health care spending is for chronic diseases, which also have indirect effects such as higher disability rates and workman’s compensation. “It forces everybody to stop and think, what can we do to prevent these things,” he said.

Some companies are offering “perks” such as subsidized athletic club memberships or wellness programs through their health insurance policies. KPS Health Plans, for example, includes a wellness component as part of all its health plans. A member portal has risk-assessment tools along with suggested 13-week interactive programs and health information.

“It’s like a personal coach. It will email you and nag you but you have to be self-motivated,” said Cathie Valentine-McKinney, director of public relations and communications for KPS.

KPS also offers a smoking cessation program as an extra-cost option to employers that includes counseling. “Since the program was first implemented in January 2011, it has been quite successful with 26 KPS federal health plan members enrolled in the program,” Valentine-McKinney said.

A smoking cessation program is one of the ideas Watson Furniture explored, working with the health district to research information. The company implemented a reimbursement incentive to help employees quit smoking.

“We understand it’s hard to make that transition so we try to help them be able to make that commitment,” said Jessica Reicks, employee services manager at Watson.

The company has a broad wellness program, which ranges from encouraging employees to use the on-site walking trail and providing a small gym on premises, to having showers in the locker rooms and arranging weekly visits by personal trainer Kay Jensen for a yoga class and guided walks. Jensen also does blood-pressure checks and provides advice to individuals.

“We make it a more personal experience …and I think the personal attention definitely helps — as well as having the option to go outside for a walk,” Reicks said.

Encouraging workplace fitness and providing incentives is especially helpful for employees who have families and other commitments, said Kathryn Kamin, public relations and marketing director for Hood Canal Communications in Union. She said a lot of times, people want to be more active but have too many other priorities. To encourage physical fitness, Kamin recently organized a fitness challenge, which had participation from about a third of the employees.

They tracked fitness and nutritional goals for eight weeks using free tools available online through the President’s Challenge program. Employees walked trails, took Zumba classes and worked out together at Union Square Fitness next door (the company provides gym memberships). The three top competitors received prizes at the end of the challenge.

“I think that health and wellness is a huge priority for everyone, no matter the stage of life. It’s beneficial to your productivity at work, your relationships, your confidence — it all helps your productivity,” Kamin said.

Last year, Hood Canal Communications paid for a nutritionist to visit the site to work with individuals and Kamin is looking at other ideas for the future. She said part of the inspiration came from Mason County Health Department, which organized a workplace challenge and a competition among businesses a few years ago. That’s where she learned about the free online tracking tools.

“One thing about the presidential challenge website is that it’s free and simple, there’s no training or licenses and it’s autonomous, so it has confidentiality built in,” she said. “I hope more businesses use these tools and can even have groups compete with each other.”

Mason County is not currently offering a formal workplace challenge program because of funding but can still offer tools to companies and the goal is to bring the program back.

“Because employees spend so much time of their day at work, we feel it’s a good place to improve wellness. It’s a good way to reduce sick days and make employees more productive,” said Heidi Iyall, program coordinator for Mason County’s health department. “A lot of the things we promote are creating a healthy culture in the worksite — what kind of strategies and policies can you implement?”

She said the increased awareness about the obesity epidemic, including the media attention, is helping motivate individuals and organizations. “We’re one of the least healthy industrial nations in the world and people are becoming aware that a lot of it has to do with healthier choices but also with our environment — it’s not just about willpower,” she said. “People are more open to hearing the message.”

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