Work At It!

Companies find ways to create healthy employees

October, 2007

Last year, Teri Orton surveyed the lunch selection in the employee cafeteria of The Renaissance Ilikai Waikiki Hotel and was not pleased by what she discovered behind the counter. Deep-fried meats. Not enough vegetables. And only white rice.

After Orton chatted with the chef, the cafeteria began adding lower-calorie wraps, yogurt and more veggies to the mix. “A lot of our staff have taken our healthy concept home to their families,” says Orton, the hotel’s general manager.

Around the time the Ilikai was revamping its menu, Baba Kamauu of the Castle Medical Center’s security department was supervising a team that lost 204 pounds in a companywide wellness contest. Their prize: recognition and a catered lunch. “I remember motivating and hustling everybody,” says Kamauu, a borderline diabetic who lost weight and lowered his blood pressure in the competition. Another Castle employee, Teri Waiolama, of the admitting department, quit smoking after 25 years with help from the company’s smoking-cessation program.

These stories reflect a wellness trend among Hawaii’s employers, who are responding to the rising cost of healthcare, “one of the most expensive benefits a company can provide,” says Patty Foley, vice president and assistant human resources director of Central Pacific Bank.

From 2000 to 2006, employer-based health-insurance premiums grew 87 percent nationally, compared to the nation’s cumulative wage growth of 20 percent and cumulative inflation of 18 percent during the same period, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Workers today pay $1,094 more annually for family coverage than they did in 2000, according to the same report.

Brown rice in the lunchroom and employee weigh-ins are the tip of the scale. Companies offer a multitude of options, including programs to address smoking (see info box) and health fairs.

First Insurance Co., for instance, has a Wellness Points program that allows employees to earn points for every physical activity they complete. “Walking around Kapiolani Park, playing racquetball at the gym, golf, you name it,” says Derek Kanehira, of the bank’s human resources department. Employees can redeem points for company merchandise or prizes. Approximately three hours of exercise equal 180 points, or movie tickets.

Central Pacific Bank had a health fair earlier this year, where employees completed a questionnaire and measured blood pressure, body fat and cholesterol. “It costs nothing to the employer, other than the time you allow your employees to get the assessment,” Foley says.

Consider the benefits: For every $1 that a company spends on employee wellness programs, it can expect to save $3 in healthcare costs, according to the Wellness Council of America. Another study by the American Journal of Health Promotions found that for every $1 spent on wellness programs, employers can expect a return of between $2.30 and $10.10 in reduced absenteeism, lower medical claims and increased productivity.

No wonder companies are on a health track. “Workplace wellness is like recycling,” says Gary Allen, executive director of the Hawaii Business Health Council. “We have to do it at the grassroots level when you’re dealing with change among employees.”

This past September the council launched a drug-compliance program to monitor employees with regular prescriptions for cholesterol, blood pressure and the like. A participating pharmacist either calls or e-mails employees one week before renewal to ask questions about their medication. Employees have two choices: The medicine either can be delivered to their home or to work. They receive a 30 percent discount on drugs, thanks to a local grant. So far, half a dozen companies, including First Insurance, Central Pacific Bank and Hawaiian Telcom, have expressed interest in the drug compliance program, he says.

The council is going on its third year of a diabetes life-coaching program involving 25 pharmacists who assist employees with the disease. The program is modeled after a campaign involving 10 cities nationwide (see Hawaii Business April 2006). “In the first year, we’re looking at net savings of $1,500 per employee in healthcare costs,” says Kanehira of First Insurance Co., which is scheduled to participate in the diabetes program in January and the drug-compliance program in October of this year. In the future, he anticipates saving between $2,500 and $5,000 annually in healthcare costs per employee.

Next year, the council will introduce a similar campaign for depression and cardiac care. It’s a move in the right direction for Hawaii’s employers, who want the best for their employees.

However, plunking down two treadmills in the company’s basement and calling it the “employee fitness center,” is the wrong approach that only caters to the physically fit. What about those who battle with obesity or who secretly smoke in the parking lot? Wellness needs to be attacked from all angles to appeal to all personnel. “In the end, you’re focusing on the overall cost of healthcare, and everybody wins because you know how to manage it, which means a longer life and a productive workforce,” says Foley, of Central Pacific Bank.

The Castle Medical Center’s departmental team challenge is one example of a program that appeals to everyone. It boosted morale and helped employees drop weight. “I remember one team that sent another team doughnuts. We had a lot of fun!” Kamauu recalls.


Last year, the rate (2.5 percent) of unscheduled absenteeism in U.S. workplaces was the highest in more than six years.

Two out of three employees who call in sick are not physically ill, according to an annual national survey by CHC Inc. and Harris Interactive. In fact, only 35 percent of unscheduled absences are due to personal illness.

  • Family issues account for 24 percent
    • Personal needs account for 18 percent
    • Stress accounts for 12 percent
    • 11 percent stay home because they feel they are “entitled” to a day off

The study found that absences were directly related to company morale. Twice as many companies (33 percent) with “Poor/Fair” morale saw an increase in unscheduled absences in the past two years, compared to 17 percent of companies with “Good/Very Good” morale.

If antismoking lobbyists in Hawaii had their way, nobody in the state of Hawaii would be allowed to smoke at work. Absolutely no one.

That’s the idea behind the $50,000 campaign, “Make It Your Business,” launched in the beginning of 2007 by The Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Hawaii. The program’s goal is to encourage companies to provide smoking cessation for employees. It mirrors a five-year-old campaign by the Tobacco-Free Coalition of Oregon.

Approximately 17.5 percent of people in Hawaii smoke. “It’s still one of the lowest in the country, and that’s good, but it’s not where we would like to see it,” says Kathy Harty, interim director for the coalition. “A multipronged approach to tobacco control has been effective, particularly in states like California,” she says.

This year, an advisory board comprised of local community and business leaders was created; the next 24 months will focus on campaign and outreach efforts. Half a dozen companies said they want to participate, including a contractor and a resort. But nothing is official yet.

For employers wanting to help employees quit, there is a specially formulated “ROI Calculator” online to help companies determine the monetary cost of smoking cessation:

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Cathy S. Cruz-George