General Articles
Balancing Work & Health

Once considered an added perk to offer employees to boost morale, reduce stress, and increase productivity, corporate wellness programs are evolving as the state of health in the American workforce continues to decrease significantly. Today, 86 million adult Americans have pre-diabetes and 34.6 percent are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that by 2030, half of all American adults are expected to be obese. By 2018, it’s estimated that obesity-related health-care expenses will cost $344 billion a year.
As a result, the goal these days is to create a company culture where employees choose to live healthier lifestyles and the payoff to companies is considerable. Corporate wellness programs can play a vital role in reducing health-care expenses and lost productivity. In fact, companies that implemented a wellness program experienced a 28 percent reduction in employees calling in sick, according to the Institute for Healthcare Consumerism.

Taking charge of wellness
Wellness programs can cover the gamut from gym memberships, smoking cessation programs, diabetes management and weight-loss programs, and preventative health screenings. Some programs are offered in-house, some involve partnering with outside vendors, and still others collaborate with other organizations or fitness events, such as promoting participation in a local marathon or 5K run, or encouraging employees to participate in the national Bike to Work Day.
North Bay employers have gotten creative in what they offer employees in their mission to remain competitive with their benefits and to boost retention. Businesses are offering everything from free athletic shoes to providing ping-pong tables at work.
“We compete with other high tech companies for talent,” says Moji Saavedra, benefits program manager at Keysight Technologies. “What we offer as an organization is certainly perceived as very competitive and a great benefit that shows the company’s commitment to our employees.”

The wellness advantage
In the process of implementing corporate wellness programs, organizations have seen the benefits exceed beyond lower insurance premiums. Though the gains are non-quantifiable, they’re just as important and chances are customers also reap the benefits.
“When everyone is happy and healthy not only do we have a great work environment, but that shines through all the way to the person who might be sipping The Republic of Tea in their home and enjoying it,” says Kristina Richens, minister of commerce and education at Novato-based Republic of Tea. “It exudes into every aspect of the company.”
The bottom line is: people who are happy and healthy serve a company’s customers better, are more productive, and they work together better.
“People want to be in a place that’s going to help them offset the cost of joining a health club or reward them for losing extra weight or give them breaks to go outside and walk with a coworker,” says Lori Zaret, senior vice president and chief human resources officer for Exchange Bank. “In addition to the health benefits, it builds good employee relations. If people are out taking walks together at lunchtime it builds camaraderie. There’s not just the direct health benefits, but the morale benefits. It promotes good teamwork and relationship building.”
Corporate wellness programs can help at any level—from those battling with preexisting conditions such as diabetes or heart disease to those employees already leading a healthy lifestyle but enjoying the additional support, encouragement, and camaraderie they can provide. While most components of wellness programs are not mandatory, the more staff that participate, the more momentum the programs gain, creating a work environment that is fun and engaging, with a spirit of unity. Employees can get to know others on their team better, and feel more connected when working towards a common goal such as training for a 10K, or participating in a yoga class together.
“It’s optional,” says Richens. “People can customize the program to whatever their needs might be. Seeing their colleagues perform at a certain level might inspire them, and they might try something new.” In recent months a personal trainer came to The Republic of Tea to work with employees.  “Everyone participated at their own level. Some maybe worked out for 10 minutes and others were there for the whole hour. It was intended to be fun and team building at the same time. When we’re together, so often we talk about what workout we’re going to do—it’s truly part of our culture.”
Offering a corporate wellness program as part of a competitive benefits package has also helped companies recruit employees, signifying to a potential employee that the employer cares about them and their health.
“People like being with an organization that wants them to be healthy and live a healthy lifestyle,” says Zaret. “Compensation is not only your base pay, it’s your variable pay and it’s all those additional benefits and perks you get. When we don’t have to raise your health insurance premiums, that’s more disposable income in your paycheck. When you don’t have to pay for a flu shot at the local drugstore or supermarket, that’s more money you can use for something else. All of those additional perks are meaningful to people.”


Employee participation
While much of what North Bay employers are offering employees in the realm of health and wellness sounds good, how do these companies motivate and enable employees to participate? After all, a program only does any good and offers any rewards if employees get involved and if employers make it possible for them to do so.
Overall, it appears that creating a healthy team mentality—one that’s more supportive than ultra competitive—can help energize employees to work together to accomplish individual health goals and encourage participation. Often this happens with a top-down approach. When employees see their managers taking time to participate in a corporate health initiative, they know it’s acceptable for them to join in, too.
“We are constantly working with our managers to help share the message,” says Colleen Boden, manager of community worksite and employee wellness at Kaiser Permanente. “If the managers are talking about it and saying, ‘Yeah, we should all go together to this seminar on our lunch break,’ then it’s telling the employees, ‘This is important—my manager cares about me and my health.’”
Some corporate wellness programs offer incentives. For example, some companies offer free Fitbits to encourage employees to participate, or coordinate challenges in which people can compete against each other to accomplish specific goals with resulting prizes. Recently, Kaiser in Santa Rosa hosted a 21-day whole foods, plant based challenge, and more than 200 employees participated, avoiding all dairy and meat for 21 days.
A couple months after the challenge, many employees continued eating a plant-based diet.  Says Boden, “They did their labs prior to starting the program and then again after.” According to Boden, some employees had been diagnosed as pre-diabetic, but by participating in the challenge their health improved. “I’ve had people coming up to me saying ‘I was pre-diabetic and I was able to reduce my numbers thanks to that program.’”
Another way to encourage employee participation is to make the information easily accessible to a busy staff who may work odd hours. Not all employees can make a seminar at noon about meditation, for example, but they could possibly view a podcast about the topic at their convenience.
Two years ago, Kaiser Permanente implemented an app that allows employees to log their physical activity and offers a “wellness wall.” This Facebook-esque virtual location offers a place where employees can post what they’re doing, display photos, and motivate, inspire, and connect with others, no matter what shift, location, or job they work within Kaiser, from a part-time administrative assistant in the human resources department to a doctor working the night shift in the emergency room.
Last, keeping information and offerings fresh and new, while listening to what people need and want also helps encourage participation among employees.
We change our corporate wellness program offerings every year, says Zaret, and the reason we do is to keep people engaged and interested. “If we did the same things all the time people would get bored. Our competitions change all the time. Sometimes we have individual competitions where you’re competing against yourself. Other times we offer team challenges because some people work better on a team. We’re constantly looking to change it up.”

Moving towards a holistic approach
Traditionally, wellness programs were aimed to benefit the physical and mental health of employees. However, some corporations are moving beyond to include all aspects of an individual’s wellbeing to benefit employees both personally and professionally. Sometimes known as “Holistic Wellness Programs,” these combine many aspects of employees’ lives to improve total health, including activities that foster career, social, financial, and community well-being. It is a trend that is being recognized and implemented by more employers in recent years. According to Segal Consulting, for example, 51 percent of U.S. employers with more than 50 employees have a wellness program. Of those, 52 percent offer stress management programs. Another study, the annual Employer Health Benefit Survey, conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research and Annual Trust (HRET), showed that 50 percent of firms offering health benefits in 2015 offered wellness programs related to “tobacco cessation,” “weight loss,” and/or “other lifestyle or behavioral coaching.”
One company moving towards a more holistic approach is Keysight Technologies, based in Santa Rosa. In early 2015, Keysight expanded on their traditional wellness offerings, incorporating programming that included everything from stress and sleep management, to elder care, a global travel health program and financial advice. 
“We value our employees and recognize that their overall well being is an important part of their life,” says Saavedra. “Our holistic approach is to ensure we support our employees in achieving their overall healthy, productive, financially-stable life, as they’re part of the Keysight family as well as when they move on beyond Keysight into retirement or other opportunities.”
As a result, Keysight offers employees assistance with assessing retirement readiness, and offers other financial consulting advice to help ensure the financial future of their workforce.
“Ultimately, we value our employees and it doesn’t stop with the physical well being,” says Saavedra. “We understand it’s a whole health approach. Considering financial stresses and obligations that employees have, they really do impact a person’s physical and mental wellbeing. We want to make sure we offer a solution that supports employees to be healthier in all aspects, including their financial wellness.”