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Wellness programs pay off in the workplace

Mark Morrow took advantage of gym membership offered by his employer, Consigli Construction.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Mark Morrow took advantage of gym membership offered by his employer, Consigli Construction.

Come lunchtime at Consigli Construction Co. in Milford, a dozen or so employees swap their business casual for workout wear and head to the gym across the street. They are trying to get healthier, trying to lose weight, and, occasionally, trying to show up their co-workers.

“This building is full of competitive people,” said personnel director Brian Brogioli. “People get pretty fired up.”

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Gym memberships are just one component of Consigli Construction’s wellness program, an initiative that aims to lower medical costs by keeping employees healthy. The program also includes nutritious snacks in the corporate cafeteria, an in-house weight loss competition, and lower insurance premiums for employees who show measurable improvements in health.

As the mounting cost of health insurance continues to strain corporate and household budgets, both employers and policy makers are increasingly turning to wellness programs as a way to help bring them under control. Later this month, the state Department of Public Health is slated to release draft guidelines to help businesses design effective wellness programs, as required by the health care cost containment law enacted last year.

Evidence indicates that carefully executed wellness programs can save employers as much as $7 for every $1 spent, according to a new study by the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, a public policy group that represents top executives at some of the state’s biggest companies. Such programs can lower health care costs over the long term, but more immediate savings can come from higher employee morale, reduced absenteeism, and increased productivity and retention.

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So what does it take to create an effective wellness program?

The roundtable’s report examined programs and experiences of eight companies and identified elements that made them successful. They included careful planning, the ability to measure progress, and respect for the attitudes, practices, and values that make up a company’s culture.

“There are best practices that could be shared broadly for folks that are thinking about doing a wellness program,” said JD Chesloff, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable.

Employers should not necessarily provide an exhaustive range of wellness options, said Kelly Dougherty, executive director of the CardioVascular Center at Tufts Medical Center and part of the group that drafted the report. Successful plans instead focus their offerings on their particular audience, she said: A workplace dominated by young men could have different needs than an office staffed largely by middle-aged parents.

“The folks we talked to who really had a handle on this really seemed to understand their workforce,” Dougherty said.

Consigli Construction, for example, shaped a program that complements its competitive company culture, with group exercise classes and workplace contests that encourage employees to push each other to adopt healthier lifestyles.

Northmark Bank, on the other hand, takes a more relaxed approach at its three locations in Andover, North Andover, and Winchester. The company’s goal is to get employees out of their seats and walking around for at least five minutes every day, said chief executive Jane Walsh. Participants are recognized with stars for each day they walk and small gifts for longer streaks.

Some employees are so dedicated to maintaining the habit that they will circle the boardroom or pace the stairs when weather keeps them indoors, Walsh said.

“It ends up building camaraderie,” Walsh said. “I think the company’s better for it.”

The Roundtable report also pointed to the need to quantify the impact of wellness programs.

Starting last year, Consigli Construction employees were offered up to $400 off their annual health insurance payments if they completed an assessment including blood pressure and cholesterol testing. To earn the same discount next year participants will have to show they have maintained or improved their health stats. The measurements let the 62 percent of Consigli employees who participate track their progress while giving the company solid metrics to determine whether its program is working.

“After we do this for a few years, we’ll be able to look back and take an average and see where it saves us money,” Brogioli said.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts uses data to target its wellness programs. After an initial assessment, employees are classified as low, medium, or high risk and directed to resources most appropriate to their needs, explained Cathy Hartman, vice president of prevention and wellness for the insurer. A low-risk employee might be advised on maintaining healthy habits; a higher-risk person might be counseled on increasing physical activity.

But there is still much to learn about the impact of wellness programs. For one, the definition of what exactly constitutes a“wellness program” remains up in the air. The report found that some companies do no more than provide access to online nutrition and exercise tips, while others, like Consigli, have invested in comprehensive initiatives.

Further, the growth in wellness initiatives — 74 percent of employers nationally reported offering such programs in 2010, up from 54 percent in 2008 — has outpaced research into their effectiveness, Hartman said. Still to be discovered is how, why, and where specific interventions work and others do not, she said.

At Consigli Construction, the results from the first year of the health metrics program are not yet in, but Brogioli expects the numbers to show success.

“You’re getting rewarded for positive results,” he said. “Common sense dictates that it is going to be very effective.”

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