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Panel of Regional CEOs Discuss the Success of Employee Wellness Strategies

On Monday, May 3, Executive leaders from over thirty major regional and international companies came together to talk about workplace wellness strategies at the annual American Heart Association’s Start! Executive Leadership Breakfast. Held at Gannett Co. in McLean, Virginia the event featured a panel discussion where executives shared successes of incorporating wellness programs, including the AHA’s Start! program, into corporate culture.

Recent studies show that the Greater Washington Region has one of the highest levels of adult obesity in the nation. The region has some of the highest rates of heart disease, stroke, and obesity in the nation and so has one of the highest rates of uncontrolled hypertension in women. For individuals, this translates into an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. For the business community, this can mean a steep incline in health care premiums, lowered productivity and increased absenteeism. Given the continuing economic pressures that companies are facing, wellness has a proven impact on improving the bottom line.

The panel was moderated by Aetna’s Senior Vice President of Sales, Tom Grote.

Panelists Chris Simmons, Managing Partner, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, Major General Deborah Wheeling, Deputy Surgeon General, Army National Guard and Scott Friedlander, President and CEO, GTSI Corporation, shared information on cost savings, benefits of using online media for outreach, and effective communication techniques to activate wellness programs.  Patrick Connelly, Chief Operating Officer for Sodexo North America, as well as Health Care Market President, and Chair of the 2010 Start! Heart Walk, also shared his perspective on why investing in a healthy workforce was important.

The reality is that Americans think they are in better heart health than they really are. According to a recent American Heart Association survey, nearly 40 percent thought they were in ideal heart health, when in actuality less than 1 percent of Americans have an ideal profile. Adult Americans spend the majority of their waking hours at work, many in sedentary careers – 164 more hours per year than 20 years ago. Over the same period, physical activity in adults has decreased, amplifying the risk and incidence for medical problems such as obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. Obesity alone costs American businesses $12.7 billion in medical expenses and $225.8 billion in health-related productivity losses per year. More specifically, an obese employee annually costs the employer an additional $460 to $2,500 in medical expenditures and absenteeism. Clearly there is a valid case for a company to invest in preventative healthcare with regards to its workforce.

Aetna has been a longtime champion of employee wellness. Aetna’s Get Active program incorporates Start! and has participation and support from the corporate CEO and Senior Management. The American Heart Association’s Start! program is built on a simple premise – walk more, eat well and you will live longer. Currently over 160 local companies are participating in the program. Start! provides companies with the tools to encourage their employees to eat healthier and exercise more. It focuses on walking as an activity because it’s accessible, free and has the lowest dropout rate of any type of exercise. As part of the program, organizations can establish walking routes, conduct walking challenges, create incentive programs and encourage employees to track their activities using free, web-based, activity tracking tools. The hot topic of the meeting was to discuss effective ways to implement programs like Start!, encourage employee participation and gauge the impact these programs have.

“The workplace can be a means to personal health rather than a barrier to it,” commented Tom Grote of Aetna. “Our internal wellness program has 20,000 participants nationwide. By offering incentives that are meaningful to our workforce and emphasizing the creation of teams to foster camaraderie and friendly competition, we have seen benefits like lowered our healthcare costs and boosted morale.”

Consistent communication and team building were strategies echoed throughout the meeting. Companies like GTSI Corporation came to the table with measurable results that translated into substantial cost savings.

“Every day there is a communication coming within the company about something related to health. I like to call it ‘The Drip,” said Scott Friedlander of GTSI Corporation. “We have achieved incredible results by making wellness a priority. We have saved 16% of our healthcare costs within the last 24 months and we have over 51% participation in the company. That number is up from from less than 5% participation when the program started… What this means is that 51% of GTSI employees are doing health assessments, using the steps versus the elevator or going to the gym.”

Friedlander cited teamwork as a key to success in addition to communication adding, “One team has lost a combined total of over 600 pounds.” GTSI created a “Biggest Loser” program which models itself after the NBC television show. Other offerings of its program includes monthly & quarterly challenges, annual Health & Wellness Care Fair, monthly Lunch & Learns, monthly and weekly educational webinars, a smoking cessation program and gym memberships.

“We have to ‘ReStart!’ to where people’s mindsets are on wellness in order to make that a top priority in life,” said Chris Simmons of PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, which fielded a team of over 400 employees to take part in last year’s Greater Washington Region Heart Walk. Acting as a champion for the company’s wellness program, Simmons lost 30 pounds over the last five months and has himself experienced an increase in energy and focus. “We are doing some very specific things at PricewaterhouseCoopers. One thing is getting people to walk more. We encourage our meeting leaders to incorporate walking into breaks. We have well lit stairwells and lots of signage. It is extremely important to reach people at the point of decision – there’s signage at the elevators to remind people to take the stairwells in order to incorporate walking into their day. Another thing is that we offer healthy choices at the vending machines. First of all we reconfigured the content to include a variety of healthy options and started an email communication program about what’s in the machines and what healthy choices are. There’s signage at the machine to help guide people to make better decisions in terms of snack options, again, at the moment of their decision.”

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The Army National Guard (ARNG) has also implemented a medical readiness and wellness program called “Decade of Health.” The program annually targets a specific area of concern – dental readiness, blood pressure awareness, weight control and this year’s theme is resilience. In an effort to promote wellness and fitness amongst Guard members as well their Families, an alliance was forged in 2007 with the American Heart Association to enhance and maximize the use of online and print media to reach their membership. Stroke prevention is this year’s AHA/ASA alliance focus. Disseminating information about stroke is critical to reducing the risk to over 350,000 ARNG Soldiers and their Families. The Decade of Health campaigns use consistent and meaningful multimedia communication to encourage participation. “The goal of this program is to promote health literacy, to promote healthy lifestyles and also enhance resiliency in our active members as well as their Families,” said Major General Deborah Wheeling. “Our alliance with the American Heart Association is designed to leverage the strengths of both organizations. AHA materials and programs are based on scientific research and provide information that is accurate, respected and helpful. Conversely the Army National Guard offers to the AHA a unique way to get their messaging out to over 1.5 million Guard Soldiers and potentially to over 9 million active duty Servicemembers across other branches of the military, their Families, veterans, retirees and DoD civilians. This partnership has significantly increased our ability to help to promote health and awareness amongst the Army National Guard and has helped us to achieve our goal of, “Always Ready, Always There, Always Healthy.”

Patrick Connelly, Chief Operating Officer for Sodexo North America, as well as Health Care Market President also spoke at the meeting. “We are always looking for ways to be financially responsible but I think we need to be physically responsible as well. We recognize that our employees are the foundation of our company. Our alliance with the American Heart Association and providing wellness programs allow us to give back to our employees, to stress that their decisions, their health and livelihood are important to us as employers. As employers have the opportunity to help our workforce take the first step towards awareness of their level of risk for heart disease and stroke, and potentially improve their lives.”

Even a moderate lifestyle change can result in dramatic shifts in health, and to the

employer’s bottom line. For every one hour of regular exercise, a person can gain two

hours of life expectancy, even if they don’t start until middle age. Research has shown

that the benefits of walking and physical activity for only 30 minutes a day include:

• Reduced risk of coronary heart disease and stroke;

• Lower blood pressure;

• Lower high cholesterol and improved blood lipid profile;

• Reduced body fat and controlled body weight;

• Enhanced mental well-being;

• Increased bone density, hence helping to prevent osteoporosis;

• Reduced risk of cancer; and

• Reduced risk of non-insulin dependent diabetes.

Beyond economic and individual benefits, there is an element of esprit de corps,

team-building and support. “Programs like Start! and instituting wellness strategies have had a positive impact on morale and created a greater sense of community and togetherness,” said Grote.

The 2010 Host Committee for the Start! Executive Leadership Breakfast included:
Pat Connolly, 2010 Chair, Chief Operating Officer, President – Health Care Sector, Sodexo
Linda Gooden, 2011 Chair-Elect, Executive Vice President, IS & GS, Lockheed Martin
Max Allway, Executive Advisor, Booz Allen
Pat Bakey, Senior Vice President, SAP North America
Peter Black, Senior Regional President, GWR, M&T Bank
Mike Christian, Senior Vice President, Equis Corporation
Colleen Fenlon, Senior Vice President, Aon
Terry Glasgow, President, NCI, Inc.
Thomas Grote, Senior Vice President, Aetna
Ted Hengst, President, Harris Corporation
Allan Horlick, President and General Manager, W*USA9
Reuven Pasternak, CEO, Inova Fairfax Hospital
David Ryan, Partner, PricewaterhouseCoopers
Larry Warren, CEO, Howard University Hospital

-Roxana Hoveyda

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