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Business Officer Magazine
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Share the Health

A homegrown campus wellness program shows promise for lowering health-related costs—pumping up employee morale and fitness.

By Susan Tellier

With these general concepts in mind, in fall 2006, a committee made up of our directors of athletics, human resources, facilities, and food services; campus nurse; and chief financial officer assembled at the college to consider what could be done to encourage employees to embrace healthier lifestyles and possibly reduce our health care costs in the long run.

Small Institution, Big Challenges

A small private business college, Nichols employs about 130 full-time staff and faculty. A large percentage of our workforce consists of baby boomers, who are reaching the age in life when poor health habits can result in chronic and expensive medical problems. In the past seven years, the college’s health care expenses have skyrocketed 137 percent, in spite of substantial increases in the percentage of costs paid by employees (now 25 percent compared to 3.5 percent in FY2000–01) and lesser increases in co-payments. The cost of health care premiums to the institution ranges from $243 for individuals to as much as $797 for families, depending on the plan an employee selects.

We did take steps to negotiate lower rates by having our broker bid out the college’s insurance and then using the bids to negotiate with our provider. Even then, costs remained high and were projected to increase each year. And, primarily because of cancer claims, our provider was spending more on treating our population than we were contributing in premiums.

These were the issues that our newly formed committee planned to address in moving forward with the launch of a campus wellness program. From the beginning, we determined that, since participation in anything we initiated would be voluntary, we needed to make our program so convenient that it would be difficult to find a reason not to participate. As we discussed our options further, we discovered that we had at hand all the resources we needed to establish an in-house wellness program.

Raising Interest in Healthier Lifestyles

Heading Off Higher Health Costs

With no relief in sight for health care costs, institutions large and small are seeking creative strategies to lower this significant part of their operating budgets. Here are links to case studies and other resources:

  • Similar to Nichols College’s initiative, the Prospective Health program at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, focuses on controlling health care costs by creating a healthier workforce. Initiatives include targeted communication and support for employees at greatest risk for developing a serious disease or chronic condition. Go to http://hrhorizons.nacubo.org/x169.xml for details.
  • Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida, provides 100-percent coverage of preventive care. Using various models that calculate out-of-pocket costs, the institution educates employees about their share of health care expenses. Read more at http://hrhorizons.nacubo.org/x170.xml.
  • Emeriti is a three-year-old consortium of higher education institutions and related tax-exempt organizations that offers a comprehensive, defined-contribution retirement health care arrangement for higher education faculty and staff. Learn more by visiting www.emeritihealth.org.
  • The Independent Colleges and Universities Benefits Association is a consortium of institutions focused on controlling health care costs. Read about the group’s ongoing challenges and successes in two Business Officer articles: “Coming Together to Cut Health Care Costs,” September 2003 (www.nacubo.org/documents/bom/2003_09_cut_health_costs.pdf) and “Battling Health Care Costs: Round Two,” July-August 2006 (www.nacubo.org/x8301.xml).
  • The University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, has established a committed coalition of students, faculty, and staff with the goal of promoting healthy lifestyle choices. Its latest efforts have resulted in the institution’s commitment to a tobacco-free campus. For details, go to http://healthy.und.edu/HUND.doc.

Our first decision was to offer a health assessment so that people could determine what changes they needed to make in their current health habits, so we asked our health insurance provider’s staff what help they could offer. They worked with us to schedule a morning of risk-assessment programs, during which employees would be screened for cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, fat density, and bone density levels.

As an incentive to attract people to this event, we designed a gym bag with the college’s logo. Everyone who participated in the screening would receive a bag containing a small workout towel, a pedometer, a stress ball, a six-pack of water, low-calorie drink mix samples, hand weights, and a brochure about scheduled fall walks in our area. The college’s human resources budget funded the cost for the bags, and our food service provider Sodexo donated a portion of the gift items.

Attendance at the event was excellent, but we did experience a few glitches. In spite of the event being coordinated by a national health care insurer, two blood analysts arrived with only one screening machine, and the fat-density specialist didn’t show up at all. As timing would have it, our health care provider’s entire staff was at a retreat that day, so it was difficult to get any help. Consequently, people waited a long time to be monitored. Once the second machine arrived (after two hours), the process moved along more smoothly. But, we learned we couldn’t rely solely on outside personnel for these functions—or if we did, we needed contact numbers in hand so we could call if something went wrong. 

After our employees completed the screening process, we asked them to set personal wellness goals if they planned to participate in our program for the academic year. We encouraged people to identify goals they thought they could reach by May 2007.

Convenience and Variety Count

The committee knew that our program had to overcome the biggest objection people have about fitness programs: They aren’t convenient. Therefore, we were determined to fit everything we offered around the college’s workday, which runs from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

We also knew that routines could become boring, so we wanted to include numerous fitness options. Some of the most popular offerings turned out to be aerobics and yoga classes slotted into the program several times a week.

Here are some of the other strategies we implemented in support of the commitments to convenience and variety:

A Weight Watchers At Work program. The college agreed to cover the cost for the first 12 weeks for anyone who wanted to participate in this program. The initial turnout was 48 people, but only half actually attended at least 60 percent of the meetings. However, those 24 people lost a total of 420 pounds during the first semester.

For the second semester, we picked up only the cost for the group who had participated in 60 percent of the meetings the first semester. We offered the At Work program in a campus building at noon on Mondays. Each meeting takes only 30 minutes, so employees were able to attend during their lunch hours.

A circuit training program created in our fitness center. We offered our program on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 7 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., because we found that very few students use the fitness center at these times. This factor was important because employees seemed reluctant to exercise with students, and students tended not to like the music employees favored. The program length varied as time went by, but generally people could complete the circuit in about 40 minutes.

Exercise groups. We organized three groups: the “Huff and Really Puff Club,” for folks who were new to exercise or getting back into it after a lengthy layoff; the “Huff and Puff Club,” for people who were already accustomed to some exercise; and the “Huffy Club,” consisting of people who were already fit.

All three groups wore pedometers, walked or biked at any time convenient for them, and logged their distances, which they reported to staff on a weekly basis. Our facilities director monitored this program and consistently sent out encouraging notices about adding more steps each week. By the end of the first semester, 25 people had walked a total of 10,376 miles.

Subscription to a healthy-living newsletter. This service allowed us to customize the monthly newsletter by adding the college’s logo. We then distributed the piece via e-mail. Each issue covered several different topics related to healthy living.

Scheduled wellness events. Since we knew the semester break and the holidays would pose a significant obstacle to peoples’ progress, we scheduled a wellness lunch in mid-December. We included a motivational speaker to provide attendees with tactics for staying on track with the program during the holidays.

Other enhancements to the program. Our second semester’s offerings mirrored those of the first semester, and people kept making progress. The committee decided to offer prizes for participation, to be awarded at a final luncheon in May. We selected three prizes, all packages at local spas. Participants received one ticket for each fitness activity completed during the year and could then enter those tickets into the drawing. In all, 84 people entered, some with multiple tickets. At the conclusion of the luncheon event, employees gave the administration a standing ovation to express their appreciation for access to such a convenient program.

Tracking Results and Costs

At the close of the spring semester, we offered another wellness screening to track participant progress. To our immense gratification, many people experienced significant declines in cholesterol and blood pressure readings. Several employees who had been taking medication for cholesterol and/or high blood pressure were able to stop taking it. Another employee lost enough weight that she no longer needed her acid reflux prescription. In total, the Weight Watchers group lost 650 pounds, with four individuals losing more than 40 pounds each. In the walking and biking clubs, 27 people collectively logged a total of 17,256 miles.

Conversation Starter
What strategy is your institution considering to mitigate escalating health care costs? E-mail editor@nacubo.org.

Our employees requested that we continue the programs through the summer.  Since our budget was exhausted, we continued only Weight Watchers at employees’ expense (with 18 people participating) and the circuit training program, which made use of our existing facilities and cost us nothing additional.

In total, the college spent $26,300 on this fitness effort during the first year, which was slightly more than we had budgeted. The greatest expense was the Weight Watchers program; more than half our funds went to this component. Twenty-one percent of the budget was earmarked for hiring part-time instructors to offer the various courses, such as aerobics and yoga. Seven percent went to screening costs, and the remainder of the budget was spent on the gym bags, lunches, prizes, and miscellaneous expenses.

Learning the Ropes

Our lessons learned from the first year of the program were mixed and included the following:

  • Group exercise keeps people motivated. It’s important to facilitate groups or offer other mechanisms for employees to exercise together. There is definitely strength in numbers, and it was really wonderful to see how supportive the groups were of members’ successes.
  • Establish specific requirements for participating in programs that involve a significant advance payment. The Weight Watchers At Work program requires payment for the entire program up front and does not reimburse the institution for people who drop out. Next year, we will ask people who want to join Weight Watchers (our most expensive activity) to give us a check for half the cost at the start of the program. If an individual then attends 60 percent of the meetings, we will return his or her check. Otherwise, we will deposit the funds to offset the college’s costs.
  • Make it easy for people to return if they drop out. Our first year showed that people drop in and out of activities during the year. At any given point, we had about a third of our employees participating.
  • Survey all participants. We are making changes to the program based on the results of a survey we conducted at the end of the first year. For example, we will be adding tai chi to the lineup this fall as well as healthy-cooking classes. We are also assembling a packet of trail maps of the local area, since our group’s favorite exercise is walking.
  • Consider how to appeal to more faculty members. While administrative staff participation in this program was excellent, faculty involvement was minimal. That is partly because faculty generally do not keep the standard hours that the staff do, so the current schedule does not work out as well for them. We are still considering ways in which we can appeal to more faculty.
  • Educate participants about setting goals. Our employees had difficulty identifying outcomes that were specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time sensitive. Next year’s kickoff luncheon will feature a speaker whose main topic will be establishing realistic objectives.

In general, we were amazed at how easy it was to set up this program and keep it going. We actually had most of the resources available either on the campus or within the local community.

Of course, the overall question that remains to be answered is, “Will this program eventually result in lower increases in our health insurance premiums?” Only time will tell, but we have already seen some encouraging signs. Realistically, we didn’t expect that a one-year program would have a significant impact on the number of cancer-related claims, and we are not even considering the possibility that premiums might decline. But, we are starting to see our monthly costs fall back to approximately 85 percent of our contributed premiums, a trend we hope will continue. And, above all, we are enjoying the benefits of more energetic employees who spend less time visiting their physicians and are grateful that we are concerned about their health.

SUSAN TELLIER is vice president of administration, Nichols College, Dudley, Massachusetts.


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