Investing in employee fitness can have a great ROI

More and more companies are discovering that providing fitness opportunities for employees pays off big time in productivity, stress relief and morale

Don’t Sweat the Investment Accumulating evidence shows that wellness in the workplace benefits the employee and the employer By Triston V. Sanders Originally published in the Oct/Nov 2010 issue of 850 Magazine

Hope Denton was like many workers in America today. She was overweight, diabetic and facing other possible health problems. However, motivated by her Tallahassee company’s wellness program (and a trip to the hospital), she lost 40 pounds, dropped her insulin shots from four a day to one, and became an inspiration, role model and mentor for other Gates That Open (GTO) employees interested in getting healthier as well. The sales representative is now selling more than automated residential gates. She’s selling health, happiness and hope to other workers in Leon County. And Denton should have employers across the 850 area code thinking about their own wellness programs.

A 2007 survey by the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association showed that 79 percent of its members felt that the current culture in America, which includes the pressures of work, family and finances, makes it difficult for people to exercise regularly and maintain healthy lifestyles. An estimated

89 percent said that if their employer offered the opportunity for them to improve their health in the workplace, they would take advantage of it. So now, many companies across the country, including some in Northwest Florida, are implementing wellness programs in the workplace — and they have found that health can equal wealth for business.

“A successful wellness program is a crucial part of any company,” says Amelia Miller, wellness coordinator for GTO. “Studies have shown that healthy employees are more productive, sick less often and have a higher morale. Not only does a wellness program foster unity among employees, it also raises awareness about healthy choices to which employees may not have had access before. A wellness program can be successful with the support of online tools, the government and local resources, regardless of budget or size.”

GTO is so dedicated to this concept that it soon will be offering a fitness and Wii exercise room for its employees.

“Without the continuous support of the upper management … this room would still be a dream,” Miller says. “It will offer a convenient (and free) place for employees to exercise and improve their overall well-being. The room has an elliptical machine, yoga and Pilates mats, fitness DVDs, and will soon feature a Wii Fit. The entire company is excited about the fitness room and can’t wait for it open.”

That may sound like fun and games, but all of this talk about wellness is serious business. As health care costs continue to climb, by 2016 some companies will spend as much annually on health benefits as they see in profits earned.

The Kaiser Foundation’s Employer Health Benefits 2008 Annual Survey says that average premiums for employer-sponsored health insurance for family coverage increased 119 percent between 1999 and 2008. The report surveyed public and private firms and also found that more than half of the companies that offered employee health benefits also offered some form of a wellness program. For the employer, a successful, results-oriented wellness program should yield at least a 3-to-1 return on investment, with some companies showing up to an 11-to-1 return.

Workplace studies show that indirect medical costs account for more than half of the total health and productivity-related expenditures employers face. Indirect health care costs include:

  • Absenteeism from work
  • Disability program use
  • Workers’ compensation program costs
  • Turnover
  • Family medical leave
  • On-the-job productivity loss (“presenteeism”)


In Leon County, a volunteer community initiative called “Working Well” was started to help get the work force healthier. The initiative has been so successful over the past three years that it recently became a not-for-profit organization. Working Well teaches company members how to design and deliver results-oriented wellness programs to their employees.

The driving force behind the effort is Mary Barley, director of corporate wellness for Gold’s Gym and Women’s World. She says research has also shown that healthy employees are happier, more productive and more engaged — all of which contribute to an employer’s bottom line.

“Due to the economy, stress is at an all-time high and employee morale is at an all-time low,” Barley says. “Substance abuse, depression and domestic violence are out of control. Companies can’t give raises or bonuses, and many are cutting salaries or health care — or at least shifting more of the health care costs to their employees. So they need to do something to help their employees cope with their situations and keep them engaged in their work so they are more productive.

“Teaching and encouraging them to take care of themselves — to eat healthier, manage stress better, become more physically active, quit smoking, manage their finances better, sleep better, etc. — is a win-win situation for both the employee and the employer,” she says.

On the opposite end of the 850 region, Baptist Health Care has a wellness program called “Get Healthy Pensacola.” Baptist spokeswoman Colleen Kirsch says that as a health care provider, the company strives to offer health and wellness for the community’s mind, body and spirit.

“We recognize that healthy living is everyone’s responsibility, and seek to serve as role models, encouraging our employees to lead by example and take charge of their health,” she says. “Our wellness program rewards its members for living healthy. In other words, we work on a points system, giving points for doctor’s visits, trips to the gym, participation in community wellness expos/programs, etc. And you can then redeem your points for free food, massages and other things through our vendors. The more you do, the more you gain.”

Employees gain, but so do companies and, in this case, taxpayers. Leon County’s “Wellness Works!” program for its employees already is proving successful and could be a real cost-saver. Based on a return-on-investment calculator and specific demographic information for Leon County, a 5 percent increase in physical activity by its employees could save the community an estimated $13,893,783 per year in medical care, workers’ compensation and lost productivity.

Shelley Cason, Leon County’s Wellness Works! chairwoman, says the program has developed a year-long calendar of events geared toward promoting healthy lifestyle choices.

“We’ve got events scheduled for every month of the year,” she says. “One of our most widely known programs is the ‘Walk Thru Florida’ program co-sponsored by Leon County Cooperative Extension. This is a six-week walking program that is extended to all city, county and state agencies and adds a bit of competition to the wellness aspect. A healthy work force is a happy work force!”

Another company that’s seeing the benefit of a wellness program is Fringe Benefits Management Company in Tallahassee. It has had a company-sponsored wellness program for more than 10 years. Fringe Benefits actually paid for one of its employees, Glenda Atkinson, to become a Certified Wellness Program Coordinator. She attended the National Wellness Institute’s annual conference in 2009 and will return this year to achieve Wellness Coaching certification.

“This is similar to a ‘biggest loser’ contest except everyone can win and no one is ever voted off,” Atkinson says. “We provide nutrition training programs that are offered on company time, and we pay employees incentive dollars if they are successful in their weight-loss efforts. For every 5 percent weight loss achieved, employees are paid $50.

“We also offer on-site fitness classes three days a week,” she says. “We have personal fitness, yoga and Zumba. Employees who attend at least 50 percent of the classes are reimbursed half the cost of the classes, and employees who attend all of the classes are reimbursed 100 percent.”

Atkinson said the company has high levels of participation and has made wellness a priority. Employees have lost weight and developed better eating habits through the nutrition program, quit smoking as a result of the smoking cessation program and smoke-free campus policy, and begun to exercise more frequently because of on-site fitness equipment and classes.

A wellness program could equate to better health for employees and therefore more wealth for the company. To find out if such a program will save your company money, check out the East Carolina University’s ROI (return on investment) calculator.

The “Working Well” initiative is expanding. Any companies in the outlying areas of Tallahassee interested in joining can call Mary Barley at (850) 385-7847.

Quantifying the Cost of Physical Inactivity

Want to assess the costs of obesity as it relates to your bottom line? The scientific evidence is clear: Regular physical activity reduces the risk of developing diabetes, high blood pressure and some cancers. It also lowers blood pressure, helps build and maintain healthy bones, muscles and joints, and promotes psychological well-being. And a physically inactive population costs money.

East Carolina University developed a very easy-to-use tool that can provide an estimate of the financial cost of physically inactive people to a particular business, community, city or state. It also provides companion resources and information you need to reallocate resources and plan for healthier workplaces and communities that are more supportive of physical activity.

Career Moves:Corporate Wellness Coach

Corporate wellness is a trend worth watching. So, too, is it a career sector that’s growing — both as a consultant and as a staff position.

Organizations such as the Spencer Institute offer online, self-study courses in Corporate Wellness Coach Certification, which can launch a new corporate position or a career in wellness consulting.

According to Spencer, 50 percent or more of U.S. companies offer some type of wellness program. Some big-box corporations are included in this statistic, such as Coca-Cola, Coors Brewing Company and Prudential Insurance. These innovative employers report documented savings for the corporate bottom line — to the tune of $500 per year per employee, according to Coca-Cola.

In fact, corporate wellness can help soothe an employee’s mind as well as their body. Research from the 2004 Ipsos-Reid corporate wellness program indicates that the three major (preventable) causes of absenteeism are mental health, stress and interpersonal conflict at work.

The Spencer certification program includes industry-typical skills such as creating a wellness culture, marketing, consumer demographics, legal concerns, health risk assessments and more.

Continued research indicates that the benefits of an official corporate wellness program are huge for both employees and companies:

  • Reduced absenteeism
  • Increased productivity
  • Improved self-confidence
  • Increased health and energy
  • Improved morale and camaraderie
  • Enhanced creativity and concentration
  • Decreased stress
  • Reduced turnover
  • Decreased injuries and health problems
  • Enhanced recruitment
  • Decreased workers’ compensation costs

— Tisha Crews Keller

CASE STUDY:Datamaxx puts fitness within easy reach

It’s the end of another long day sitting in front of your computer. Eager to log in some miles on the treadmill before crashing at home, you grab your gym bag and head down the carpeted hallway, where a fully-stocked gym awaits. There are two treadmills, elliptical machines, spinning bicycles, weight lifting equipment, cable television and two locker rooms with showers. And you’re the only one there.

It sounds like every worker’s dream, but it’s reality for the 62 employees of Tallahassse-based software company Datamaxx. The 34,000-square-foot SouthWood headquarters of Datamaxx, which makes software used by law enforcement agencies such as the New York Police Department, offers a number of perks for the staff. Beyond the gym, the building has a 70-seat auditorium that looks like it belongs on a college campus and a liberal policy towards working from home or bringing pets and children to work.

“The gym was designed exclusively for the use of employees and their spouses,” said Larry Allen, the director of human resources for Datamaxx. “It’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” Allen said founders Kay Stephenson and Jonathan Waters wanted to help employees stay fit after a day spent hunched over a computer screen.

“It’s very popular,” Allen said. Because the Tallahassee office employs only about 50 people locally, most employees have the gym to themselves during their workouts. “We have some people that come in early in the morning, we have some people that at lunchtime come up and use it since we have TV and we have some people who use it in the evenings or on weekends,” Allen said. “It’s like a private gym – there is so much equipment in there you don’t need a gym membership.”

It’s rare for businesses of Datamaxx’s size to offer these types of health perks. Many companies cannot afford to invest in a shower or gym equipment, or find a building to lease that offers these types of extras. Even large companies or state office buildings don’t usually offer these types of amenities. Datamaxx was founded in 1991, but when the new SouthWood headquarters was built in 2001, Stephenson and Waters made sure to install a gym.

“At the end of the day, I just walk down to the end of the hallway and I’m ready to go,” Allen said. “If I had to get up and drive, change clothes and go out again after working all day that puts me at 7:30 p.m. before I get home. After awhile, that gets hard to do.” — Lilly Rockwell