by Andrea Doyle | November 12, 2012
Open any consumer magazine or turn on any TV talk show and the issue of health is front and center, from Health and Fitness to “The Doctors” and “Dr. Oz.” While most Americans are fully aware of what it takes to be healthy, most are not willing to make the effort to do so.

Obesity is one of America’s most serious and widespread health problems and is only getting worse. In the U.S., adult obesity rates have doubled since 1980, from 15 to 30 percent, according to a recently released report by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Obesity leads to significant health consequences and increased healthcare costs.

“By 2030, medical costs associated with treating preventable obesity-related diseases are estimated to increase by $48 billion to $66 billion per year in the U.S., and the loss in economic productivity could be between $390 billion and $580 billion annually by 2030,” according to the report, “F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future 2012.” Although the medical cost of adult obesity in the U.S. is difficult to calculate, current estimates range anywhere from $147 billion to nearly $210 billion per year.

Today, employees are working longer hours than ever before, spending most of their waking hours in the office. Taking this into consideration, many innovative companies have incorporated incentivized wellness programs that raise awareness and provide health-related information and education to their corporate cultures. Plus, a person’s health and well-being directly impacts how she functions and performs at her job, which in turn impacts a company’s bottom line. But eating right and exercising takes serious commitment, and motivation is a key to success. Oftentimes, incentive rewards in various forms are used as extrinsic motivators to drive employee engagement in these wellness programs.

“Wellness programs change lives and incentives help,” says Jennifer Patel of Hallmark Business Connections. Patel leads Hallmark’s health-and-wellness team, providing the strategy, vision, design, and implementation for incentive and worksite wellness programs for a wide variety of businesses from the Fortune 50 to Fortune 500. “They reward a certain behavior, and soon, those behaviors become part of the participants’ lives,” she says. 

One of Hallmark Business Connections’ internal programs consists of 13 weeks of weight-loss classes. “If an employee attends 12 of the 13 sessions, we pay for the program,” says Patel. “A colleague lost almost 50 pounds as a result of participating in this program, and it has changed her life. This is something we hear all the time. It’s also proof that if you provide opportunities and incentives for your employees to make behavior change, amazing things can happen.”

Incentive rewards are used by many employers in health-and-wellness programs. According to Buck Consultants, a global human resources consulting firm, 62 percent of companies in the U.S. and 19 to 41 percent of employers outside the U.S. use health incentives. Buck’s research, “Working Well: A Global Survey of Health Promotion and Workplace Wellness Strategies,” also points out that, in the past, incentive rewards were used primarily in the U.S., but are now increasingly offered by employers in all parts of the world. 

Ramsey, NJ-based Susan Levy Malandra, healthwise coordinator for FC USA, travels all over the country meeting with FC USA’s more than 2,000 employees, acting as a full-time wellness guru who helps employees become healthier. FC USA, which through its parent company, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Flight Centre Limited in Australia, is one of the largest travel groups in the U.S., with more than 250 retail, wholesale, corporate, and e-commerce businesses. 

Malandra uses pedometers, contests, and organized runs to motivate her colleagues. Combined with her knowledge and enthusiasm about health and wellness, they create an effective reward system. Forty-two-year-old Malandra has been teaching group fitness for more than 20 years, is a Spin and yoga instructor, has competed in 10 marathons, and is training for an Ironman competition. At work, she becomes her colleagues’ biggest health advocate, with work-life balance as her major focus. 

“Study after study shows that healthier, happier, less-stressed employees are more productive and focused,” says Malandra. “Being a travel consultant is a very sedentary job, so it’s important I get them motivated to get out and be healthy.”

The passion to be healthy flows from the top down at Flight Centre Ltd. Managing Director and Flight Centre Limited Founder Graham “Skroo” Turner is a committed cyclist and endurance athlete. According to another survey by Buck Consultants, “Winning Strategies in Global Workplace Health Promotion,” senior leadership support is a key factor or predictor of a successful program. It is also important that the internal culture of the company stresses wellness. For example, in the Buck survey, Chevron was noted for its corporate ritual of starting its meetings with a health and well-being moment.

FC USA’s Malandra travels across the country meeting with all U.S.-based employees for “Bio Age” consultations. With these consultations, she tests a wide range of physical, nutritional, lifestyle, and emotional factors to determine an employee’s Bio Age, a measurement of overall well-being. Push-ups, a plank stance, and a wall sit are part of her test. She also checks the ergonomics of an employee’s work environment to see how it can be improved. She encourages all employees to share the results of their Bio Age consultations with family members, with the hope they can get on the health kick together. The 
success stories Malandra has as a result of her Bio Age consultations are numerous. Recently, a woman reduced her number by seven years in just six months by adding fruits, vegetables, and exercise to 
her life. 

Follow-up is vital to success. Malandra checks in with each employee to see how they are doing and writes a monthly health newsletter that includes lifestyle tips and recipes. 

Looking at health from a holistic standpoint, FC USA also offers its employees access to a program called Moneywise. “Employees are encouraged to bring in their bills to see what they are spending where and will get help with establishing financial goals,” explains Malandra. “By being financially secure, a whole lot of stress is eliminated from one’s life, thus leading to better overall health.”  

Interestingly, another area being addressed by today’s corporations is mental health and well-being, according to Buck Consultants. Employers are starting to focus on, assess, and improve psychosocial factors like the balance between supervisors’ demands and employee control in the workplace, or effort-reward, role ambiguity, bullying, or harassment at work. When issues such as these are not addressed, employee health and productivity suffer, according to the Buck survey. 

FC USA’s pedometer challenge motivates participants to take 10,000 steps a day, which is approximately five miles. At the end of a six-week challenge, employees who reach that goal randomly get picked for gift cards, trips, and hotel stays.

FC USA is similar to other companies that give trips or merchandise, raffles, and cash as part of incentive programs for health and wellness. Those items are among the most popular incentives given out by employers as part of wellness programs. Also prevalent are discounts and subsidies for preventative health services like an annual physical and other preventative screenings, as well as subsidized fees for fitness clubs and wellness classes, such as those for smoking cessation and weight loss.

FC USA has two annual gatherings, a U.S. conference and a global conference. Employees who qualify for the annual global gathering through their sales numbers have traveled to destinations that include Paris, Phuket, and Bali, with speakers such as Michael J. Fox, Lance Armstrong, and Sir Richard Branson. 

The U.S. conference has been held in Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore. “It’s a giant celebration with 2,000 of your coworkers,” says Malandra about the U.S. conference. The highlight of the U.S. 
event is a gala ball, complete with cocktail party, dinner, and an awards ceremony. 

Malandra is no stranger to the world of event planning, having worked as a planner for Liberty Travel and GOGO Vacations before transitioning into her present position. Before that, she coordinated character events across the country for Sesame Street Workshop, where she would also transform into the walk-around character Elmo. 

The morning after the ball, Malandra leads a five-kilometer run called “Run Your Ball Off.” On average, she has close to 100 employees who join her.

Every January, a 12-week challenge begins whereby FC USA employees work on losing weight, gaining muscle, quitting smoking, and getting healthy. Not only do employees have to write essays about how the challenge has helped them but so do their family members and/or co-workers. “We take a holistic approach to health and try to get the whole family involved,” enthuses Malandra. Prizes include trips to exotic locations. “Although the incentives we employ are motivating, the biggest motivation is often how getting healthier can change one’s life for the better.”    

In New Jersey, an interesting initiative is underway. Called the Workplace Wellness Campaign, it enables employers to implement voluntary wellness tracking programs through a public-private partnership among corporate sponsors, the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute, and state government. It was set up for New Jersey-based employees with a $75,000 grant from Wal-Mart Stores. Its mission is to equip CEOs and other key business leaders with the tools to develop and implement active-living initiatives for their employees, with the ultimate goal of improving health and reducing healthcare costs. 

“Much like our Mayors Wellness Campaign [which is meant to help mayors and other key leaders develop active-living initiatives in their communities], we want to allow for companies to create and implement their own programs that work for their specific company,” explains Melissa Kostinas, director of the campaign as well as the Mayors Wellness Campaign. “We are simply giving them the tools to help create their own unique program.” 

New Jersey employers are being asked to sign a simple “wellness pledge” in order to join the Workplace Wellness Campaign. It states that the firm “pledges to promote wellness within our company.” There is no cost to join.

Some companies have also found that one way to incorporate wellness into the corporate culture is by creating strategic physical movement throughout the workday. Studies show it positively contributes to employees’ increased energy levels and engagement. New Balance, one of the world’s leading athletic footwear companies, turned to Wellness & Prevention, a health and performance solutions provider, to do just that. Throughout its 90-day program, Organization in Motion, New Balance received ongoing support with a formal kickoff by Dr. Jack Groppel, co-founder of the Human Performance Institute and vice president of applied science and performance praining at Wellness & Prevention. A program toolkit, bi-weekly rally calls, and daily email tips offered ideas and suggestions for frequent and creative workplace movement. 

As most executives can attest, sitting in one position for too long isn’t beneficial. It can lead to impaired blood circulation and a decrease in metabolism and energy levels, says Dr. Groppel. 

“People have to realize that even if they are extremely fit, sitting for hours in meetings or on conference calls causes the brain to begin shutting down,” says Dr. Groppel. “Today’s business leaders need to learn from companies like New Balance that strategic and frequent movement throughout the day can have a positive impact on employee engagement, focus, and energy.”