Fiscally Fit

Companies invest time and money in healthy, happy employees

April, 2002

For an average of six days out of the month, members of Hawaii’s work force are not as productive as usual. Local workers report that, on those days, they feel their daily activity is limited because of poor physical or mental health.

That state Department of Health statistic translates into high costs for local businesses.

Not only are they affected by reductions in productivity, but they spend millions of dollars annually to cover potentially avoidable health expenses.

A growing number of Island employers refuse to accept that reality lying down. Nationally, more than 81 percent of businesses with 50 or more employees have some form of health promotion, according to the Wellness Councils of America.

“If the employer can help the employees become healthier, the chances are they’re going to be on the job more often and more productive as well,” says Chuck Marshall, HMSA public information coordinator. “The role the employer has is important because he sets the corporate environment at work, and if work includes health and learning activities, it bonds the employee more to the company.”

Verizon Hawaii has taken several steps to improve the overall health of its 2,500 workers. The corporation’s employees range from field workers who scale telephone poles to office staff members who sit at computers for most of the day.

About 325 employees from all departments have become members of the corporation’s downtown fitness center. Financed completely by each member’s $20 monthly dues, the facility offers cardiovascular and weight-training machines, a half basketball court and classes, such as kickboxing, yoga and Pilates.

Employee Darrel Tamura works out at the corporate gym every morning before heading to his office. An exercise regimen and diet have resulted in positive changes for the systems analyst, who was diagnosed with diabetes and high blood pressure five years ago.

“I just feel good, and I have a lot more energy during the day than before,” says Tamura, who lost 20 pounds in the process and was taken off his diabetes medication two years ago. “The bottom line is: Having a fitness center here is priceless as far as employees’ health is concerned.” Exercise has long been touted as a key tool in preventing and combating obesity – often a factor in heart disease cases – and hypertension, which can lead to strokes as well as cardiovascular diseases.

Fitness manager and exercise physiologist Michele Tokuda says that on any given day, about 100 employees use the gym, which is open Monday through Saturday.

“From the company’s standpoint, they’re helping to decrease absenteeism and increase morale,” says Tokuda, who distributes newsletters updating staff on co-workers’ fitness progress. “We also try to improve employees’ well-being and the overall quality of life.”

Verizon, which offers health insurance through HMSA and Kaiser Permanente, offers nonsmoking employees a $60 discount on both medical coverage and life-insurance premiums. All health plans include a free or low-cost annual physical, Spokeswoman Ann Nishida says. Regular health screenings are essential in the early detection of the most common chronic diseases.

Most cases of heart disease, cancer and stroke—the top three leadings causes of death in Hawaii – could be prevented through behavioral changes and can be controlled if diagnosed early.

For the past five years, Times Supermarket has offered to cover its 900 employees’ premium cost shares if they receive regular health exams, says Clifford Hayashi, human resource director. Employees with family coverage, which requires that spouses also get checked, could save about $400 to $600 annually.

“We’ve been extremely successful in prevention and early detection,” Hayashi says. “We had two colon cancers, three breast cancers and a whole bunch of diabetes detections, and that’s just from employees telling us. … It’s gratifying, and it’s a great program.”

Hawaiian Electric Co. Inc. adopted a similar program in the late 1980s to help curb employee health costs. Nationally, medical costs can eat away at half of corporate profits for many companies, according to the Wellness Councils.

The “Working on Wellness” program provides HECO employees several free services: informational brown-bag sessions on varying topics, health fairs, flu immunizations and screenings that include cardiovascular, blood pressure, vision, lung capacity and audio checks. About 1,300 employees have voluntarily used the program, HECO Spokesman Fred Kobashikawa says. Stress-management classes are another popular component of HECO’s wellness program. It’s no wonder, considering about 75 percent to 90 percent of visits to primary-care physicians are for stress-related problems, according to the American Journal of Health Promotion. Diagnosis and treatment for stress, a major contributor in hypertension cases, are easy and inexpensive.

Through Straub Clinic & Hospital, HECO also offers an Employee Assistance Program to aid workers concerned about family situations or alcohol and drug abuse.

Although not a major concern at HECO, the number of binge and chronic drinkers in Hawaii is well above national averages, according to the state Department of Health. Alcohol abuse can result in life-threatening conditions, such as liver and kidney diseases.

Diabetes, which affects about 6 percent of Hawaii residents, is another prevalent disease that can be easily controlled if detected in its early phases.

All of HMSA’s 630,000 members receive notices on their birthdays reminding them to take advantage of HealthPass, a program that offers free screenings for body fat, cholesterol and overall physical and lifestyle assessments. About 20,000 members use those services annually, Marshall says. HMSA also offers Diabetes, Asthma and Cardiac Care Connections to members living with those diseases. More than 80,000 residents are members of the three free programs, all of which have a call center staffed with healthcare professionals. They also provide informational literature to members and disease-tracking and management advice over the phone.

Kaiser Permanente collaborates with more than 100 employers to coordinate onsite health programs through its 9-year-old endeavor “Kaiser On-the-Job.” Working on a fee-for-service basis, Kaiser staff can recommend different levels of initiatives, from circulating informational literature to hosting disease-awareness presentations and time-management classes.

The insurance company also works with employers to implement behavior-changing programs that require repeated interaction between workers and health experts. One example is its “Walking for Winners” class, where employees meet regularly for a calorie-burning workout with a walking expert over an eight-week period.

“Based on the kind of work they do, we can tailor the program to specific needs,” Marketing Manager Suzanne Fields says, adding that the program also is available to employees who aren’t Kaiser members. “If someone’s in an office setting, we would recommend stretch and strengthening exercises you could do at a work station.”

Kaiser On-the-Job deals with multiple professions, from blue-collar laborers to employees in telecommunications and transportation to public workers. Through monitoring workers’ biometric measures – body fat, glucose levels, blood cholesterol, etc. – Kaiser has seen marked improvements in the health of participating employees.

“Employers get a work force that is more aware of its health,” Fields says. “When they are more aware and do more about it, one result is reduced absenteeism. With an effective work force, in the financial sense, there’s a return on investment.”

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