Walk the talk on wellness

PetSafe Inc. sponsors weight-loss contests for employees and reimburses their purchases of nicotine patches. Eastern Financial Florida Credit Union gives staffers $100 toward their annual gym fees.

These and many other small businesses are offering perks known as wellness benefits in hopes of lowering their health care costs and promoting a happier and more productive work environment.

They also hope the benefits make them more attractive to prospective employees.

PetSafe, a pet products company based in Knoxville, Tenn., has a program that awards points to workers who go to the doctor, donate blood, work out in a gym or take wellness classes. Laurie Macnair, whose title at PetSafe is director of talent development, said that at the end of each quarter, staffers can redeem their points for movie passes, lunches, even gift certificates of up to $100.

Macnair said the idea for PetSafe’s wellness benefits actually originated with staffers. But the company has agreed to sponsor the various parts of the program, which also includes weight loss contests and paying for smoking cessation aids such as nicotine patches. It has also built a gym that’s free for all employees.

PetSafe management believes the company will benefit from a healthier work force. “In order for the organization to be built to last, its employees have to be built to last,” Macnair said.

The company is also looking to improve morale. It encourages employees to take breaks with or without their pets, which staffers are allowed to bring to work each day.

At Paylocity, an Elk Grove Village, Ill.-based payroll processing company, employees can get a better rate on their health insurance if they take steps to keep themselves healthy, such as undergoing routine testing and meeting goals for conditions such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

President Steve Sarowitz, who’s a believer in taking care of your health, said his company hopes to lower its health care costs. So Paylocity is contracting with a company that creates and administers employee wellness programs.

But Sarowitz said he’s not looking to be Big Brother.

“We were very concerned when we implemented this that it be a positive experience for our employees as well,” he said.

So the company has also held smoking cessation and weight management classes onsite, and helps employees get discounted gym memberships. It also pays for them to enter a corporate challenge race and holds a party for those who take part.

“We want to give them support in their efforts,” Sarowitz said.

Rob Wilson, president of Employco, a Chicago-based human resources firm, says wellness benefits are becoming more popular, although he’s not seeing any of his small business clients saving money on health care. But Wilson says there nonetheless is great value in offering such benefits to workers.

Wilson said helping employees improve their health can raise a company’s productivity and help the business avoid hiring temporary workers because of staffers’ sick leave. And it does improve morale, he said.

Wilson noted also, “we see clients trying to encourage employees to eat healthier.” So some companies with cafeterias are making an effort to provide more healthy menu choices. At Paylocity, the vending machines are also offering more healthy snacks, Sarowitz said.

Many businesses believe that investing in their employees’ well-being is also an investment in the company itself.

“If our employees are happy, our customers are happy,” said Melanie Margolies, whose title at Eastern Financial Florida Credit Union is recognition and awards specialist.

So the company based in Miramar, Fla., has Weight Watchers meetings and fitness classes onsite. The employees do pay for the sessions, but because the company is able to get a large group together, the fee is discounted.

The company does rebate employees $100 each for their annual gym memberships, provides them with flu shots and holds a health fair, bringing in health professionals who do vision, cholesterol and other tests and who answer staffers’ questions.

This year, the credit union is also planning a hurricane planning day, Margolies said. Since Florida is a prime target during the Atlantic hurricane season, “we want to help prepare them for their health and safety, during and after a hurricane.”

Margolies said the company gets another side benefit of its own from the perks – it makes the credit union a better employer.

“It helps us recruit and retain” employees, she said.

Joyce Rosenberg writes about small business for the Associated Press.

Associated Press

Sherry Onkotz holds her 2-year-old dog Tucker at the PetSafe office in Knoxville, Tenn.

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