WORKING HEALTHY Employers are giving more thought to fostering workers' well-being

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Nearly every day at 12:30 p.m., bookkeeper Marjorie Williams trades her business suit for sweat pants and a T-shirt. She heads to the carpeted basement of her downtown office building, where she exercises for about an hour on a multiuse weight machine and also does a series of sit-ups and leg lifts.

It's a workout that leaves her feeling refreshed and energetic. And it's done with the approval of her boss, lawyer Joseph Schwartz.

"I think employees are more satisfied and relaxed when they exercise," said Mr. Schwartz, who purchased the weight machine 1 1/2 years ago for his five-employee law firm, Joseph A. Schwartz III, P.A. "There's nobody here who's mad about being at work, and one of the reasons is that we provide the opportunity to exercise."

Mr. Schwartz's law firm isn't unique.

With health-care costs rising steeply, more and more companies are finding ways to encourage employees to lead healthy lives. Fitness programs can lead to lower absenteeism, increased morale and reduced health-care costs, said Dr. Donald Vickery, founder of the Center For Corporate Health Promotion, a Reston, Va.-based organization.

Approximately 75 percent of large corporations (those with more than 500 employees) nationwide offer some type of fitness or wellness program for their employees, according to Dr. Vickery.

Fewer smaller companies follow suit, but the number is growing, he said.

A fitness/wellness program featuring a well-equipped gym and an on-staff medical team probably isn't a feasible option for many small companies. But there are plenty of steps that companies of any size can take to encourage healthy habits.

* Health fairs. Holding a health fair is a popular, quick method of improving employee awareness about health, according to Tom

Kapp, a spokesman for Sinai Fitness Corporate Services Division, a subsidiary of Sinai Hospital. Through blood pressure screening and cholesterol testing, employees gain important information about their bodies, as well as tips on changing harmful habits.

An upcoming Sinai Fitness fair at Chamberlain MRC, a Hunt Valley engineering and manufacturing firm, will feature booths on stress management, posture analysis and nutrition.

"We like to try to keep our employees healthy and keep medical costs down, and this seemed to be a good way to do it," said Buck Cloeren, a personnel assistant at Chamberlain MRC. The company is a division of Duchoissois Industries Inc. of Elmhurst, Ill.

A fair also can indicate new ways for a company to provide health services for employees, Mr. Kapp said. If test results show that high cholesterol is a problem among employees, for example, company officials might want to arrange a short seminar on cholesterol reduction.

Health fairs can range in price from $500 to $4,000, depending on the size of the company and the services provided, Mr. Kapp said. The fairs can be arranged through many local hospitals.

* On-site exercise. Providing facilities for on-site exercise has proven attractive to many companies, according to Steve Dorsey, manager of the Timonium branch of Carolina Fitness Equipment, a North Carolina-based fitness equipment retailer. Mr. Dorsey said that about 50 percent of his store's annual revenue is generated from corporate sales.

For about $1,500, it's possible to purchase a multiuse weight machine, a single unit that can provide exercise for various parts of the body. Later, a company might want to invest in an exercise bike or a treadmill.

The convenience of having equipment at work can't be overestimated, Mr. Dorsey said. "If the equipment is right there, people are more likely to take advantage of it than if they have to go to a health club," he said.

If a company has a conference room that's free during lunch, it might want to consider hiring an aerobics instructor from a local fitness center to teach a few times a week.

The cost, which generally ranges from $500 to $600 for an eight-week class, can be paid entirely by the employees, or split between the employees and the employer.

Between 20 and 25 MNC Financial Inc. employees attend aerobics and toning classes held at the company's Light Street location, said Carrie Rothenberg, manager of MNC's Health and Work/Family Services. The twice-weekly classes are conducted during lunch hours and after work.

"We have what we call our 'lifers,' people who come to work just because they can't miss an aerobics class," said Ms. Rothenberg. "When we have to cancel a class because of snow, they give us a lot of headaches about it."

Companies may also choose to subsidize memberships to a local health club.

* On-site wellness. By helping their employees kick unhealthy habits at an early stage, companies can prevent massive insurance costs down the road. Wellness classes taught by outside consultants can help set employees on the right track.

Every year, T. Rowe Price Associates Inc., the Baltimore investment services company, attempts to reduce smoking among employees by offering a four-week on-site smoking cessation class.

To provide more incentive, the company pays for a majority of the class fee and sometimes offers a gift certificate for dinner at a chic restaurant to those who remain smoke-free for at least six months.

The class has proven moderately successful. Last year, three of the eight "students" quit smoking through a class taught by a Sinai Fitness psychologist.

"Any time we get one person to quit smoking, I'm pleased," said Barbara O'Brien, manager of employee relations for T. Rowe Price.

Companies can also hire consultants to teach on-site weight-loss classes. Weight Watchers of Baltimore Inc. is conducting classes at about 30 local corporations, according to Bonnie Granek, administrator for the company's At Work Program. Companies sometimes choose to pay for part of the cost of the classes.

* Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). In addition to paying attention to its employees' physical health, a company needs to keep an eye on the mental well-being of its staff. Instituting an employee assistance program is often a solution for dealing with issues such as substance abuse or mental illness.

Through an EAP, employees can consult on-site professionals about any personal problem interfering with work. The EAP professional may then refer the employee to an appropriate resource, such as a psychologist or a self-help group.

Some companies contract with a telephone EAP service rather than hire an on-staff professional. Employees of MNC Financial Inc., for example, can call a 24-hour, toll-free number to receive assistance and referrals.

EAP costs vary widely depending on the type of service and the number of employees. For information about setting up an EAP, call the Employee Assistance Professionals Association Inc. at (703) 522-6273.

* The Ergonomics and Safety Element. Work conditions can play a large role in employee health, according to Dr. James Ricely, chief of cardiology at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center. Savvy employers will insure that a suitable work environment exists by placing restrictions on smoking within the workplace, and by monitoring ventilation and lighting.

Employers must also be aware of the science of ergonomics, or how human beings adapt to machinery and equipment, said Dr. John McIntyre, an orthopedic surgeon at GBMC. Employers can prevent some complaints of backaches, for example, by choosing chairs that are adapted to the contours of the human body.

Equipment placement is equally important. One side effect of jobs that require employees to perform repetitive tasks such as typing or using cash registers is carpal tunnel syndrome, a nerve compression that causes achiness or numbness in the wrist or hand.

Employers can reduce such problems by encouraging bTC employees to adjust their seat levels to a height that causes less strain on the wrists. Providing computer desks where the keyboard sits at a fairly low level can also be helpful, Dr. McIntyre said.

Employees who move heavy objects frequently should be taught how to lift without causing injuries to the spine, Dr. McIntyre said. And those who work with dangerous equipment should be taught appropriate safety measures.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. trains its employees to work safely and posts safety notices on bulletin boards. "We say to people that the way they come to work is the way we want them to go home," said Susan Guarnieri, manager of safety and medical services for BG&E.;

"We take the stand that all accidents are preventable."

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