A Job Interview On Ellipticals? Welcome To The Wellness-Crazed Workplace

workplace wellnessWhen Rachel Cooper went for a job interview at a Maryland company last August, she wasn't sure what to expect. After all, it was her first job interview since graduating from the University of Miami. But the 23-year-old never imagined she'd be fielding questions from an interviewer who was working out on an elliptical machine.

"I definitely knew this was going to be a different kind of place to work in," says Cooper. Some eleven months later, Cooper, a program assistant at Wellness Corporate Solutions, LLC, a corporate wellness consultancy based in Cabin John, Md., has become accustomed to seeing colleagues doing business in yoga pants and shorts, holding "walking" meetings, and excusing themselves for "Tabata" breaks, which is an intense aerobic exercise regimen.

Back in 2004, WCS was founded by entrepreneurs Juliet Rodman and Fiona Gathright who sensed a demand for workplace wellness expertise. Now the company has 39 full-time employees and over 150 clients including consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton and Marriott Hotels & Resorts. It is part of the growing emphasis on "corporate wellness" programs designed to improve employees' health -- and lower employee medical expenses.

According to the Towers Watson annual employer survey, the number of companies offering financial incentives to get healthier has nearly doubled, from 36 percent in 2009 to 61 percent. (WCS offers an iPad to the employee who improves their running time the most in their "soldiers' challenge." The event invites workers to keep track of their times over an eight-week period for two-mile runs.)

While wellness programs at many companies range from an occasional yoga class during lunchtime and gym memberships to group competitions, the trend is likely to accelerate in light of the Affordable Care Act. Recently upheld by the Supreme Court, the ACA hikes rewards from employer wellness program to 30 percent of the cost of employee health benefit costs -- up from 20 percent.

And with 2 out of 3 Americans overweight or obese, more employees also are interested in improving their health. In some companies, workers are even organizing office-wide fasts, in which the workers swear off solid food and drink concoctions that are supposed to cleanse the body and improve energy. Even workers at staid financial firms, like Merrill Lynch and the Carlyle Group, recently completed a six-day juicing diet, according to The New York Times.

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WCS, not surprisingly, takes the wellness trend seriously, infusing it into every aspect of their culture. Workers are encouraged to come to work in their exercise clothes because, as Rodman says, "That way, it's much easier to get down and do 10 push-ups." And each afternoon, the office hosts a five-minute break so that workers can take part in the Tabata training sessions of push-ups and sit-ups.

%VIRTUAL-hiringNow-healthcare%"This company has changed me," says Cooper, of WCS. Working in an office that emphasizes fitness has motivated her to change her diet. She's switched from a diet of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal to one of oatmeal quinoa salads. She says that she's lost six pounds since joining the company.

But can these kind of trendy wellness programs really drive down health care costs and improve workers' health and productivity, as proponents like WCS claim? One high-profile example suggests there is a payoff for both employers and workers.

The Cleveland Clinic, which is often ranked as the nation's best provider for cardiac care, instituted an ambitious wellness initiative eight years ago for its 40,000 workers. First, the Cleveland Clinic immediately banned its workers from smoking at work and offered programs to help workers quit altogether. Then the clinic removed all sugar-based drinks from the premises.

Finally, the Cleveland Clinic mandated that its workers attend its gym or yoga classes on a regular basis, and enforced a financial penalty if a worker missed any classes. The results were striking. Basic health metrics improved over the eight years as health care spending dropped. As a group, the 40,000 workers lost 250,000 pounds between 2005 and last year, according to Bloomberg News. During that period, health care costs across the country rose 6 percent a year, yet at the Cleveland Clinic, costs leveled off before reaching a point where spending might actually drop, an almost unheard of phenomenon in the employer-based health care economy.

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Even if programs are proven to work, there are risks, especially for employees. This new era could also herald the beginning of an effort to discriminate against sick and even unfit workers, according to research by Georgetown University and the Robert Johnson Wood Foundation.

The paper's authors, JoAnn Volk and Sabrina Corlette, say that poorly designed programs could result in directly shifting costs to "those with the greatest health care needs." And as a result, those workers could be targeted by employers looking to cut down on costs. As an example, the authors cite one unnamed employer which raised overall health deductibles from $500 to $2,500. Workers can then reduce their own portion in $500 increments by meeting targets for four categories: blood pressure, body-mass index, cholesterol and tobacco use. In an interview with Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Volk said the arithmetic for the employers won't be difficult: If someone is "on the wrong end of any of those four tests," then overall costs will "have gone up."

According to Rodman, though, helping employees become healthier is often just about education, not coercion. "A lot of employees simply don't know or realize that processed foods are a problem," says Rodman, the founder of WCS.

And for its clients, WCS administers biometric screenings for all its clients to allow employees to find out their cholesterol and blood sugar levels, and their body mass index, among other tests. The company's 39 full-time employees then offer expertise in the form of seminars from their nine personal trainers and four registered dietitians.

In their seminars, the companies are encouraged to ditch bagels and pizza, restock their vending machines with products like organic coffee or dried fruit packs, and take part in activities like walking meetings.

"We need to change what it means to be a full-time employee in the USA," says Rodman.

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