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Casting New Jersey as 'the healthy workplace state' Pilot program taps big names to push wellness among employees

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John Sarno says the program is designed to be customized by employers, to help them achieve the best results.
John Sarno says the program is designed to be customized by employers, to help them achieve the best results.

Rutgers University and the Employers Association of New Jersey are partners in a new statewide program to develop an online toolkit employers can use to build a healthier workplace, with activities ranging from mid-day walking clubs to more nutritious snacks in the vending machines.

The pilot program will enlist small, medium and large employers in each county. A steering committee includes supermarket wholesaler Wakefern, the health plan network QualCare and the Medical Society of New Jersey.

Kathleen Morgan, chair, and Joanne Kinsey, assistant professor of the Department of Family and Community Health Services at Rutgers Cooperative Extension,are working with EANJ President John Sarno, to develop the workplace wellness toolkit, funded by a $117,000 federal grant awarded by the state Department of Health. The one- year project will recruit at least one employer in every county, and by early spring expects to have at least one healthy initiative under way at each location.

Kinsey said each employer's needs will be assessed, and they will get training on how to implement the program. "Each worksite will design a change that works best for their community — we won't go in and say, 'you must do this or that,' " she said.

For example, a workplace with a cafeteria might start serving healthier food; another employer may offer preventive health screenings, or provide water to dis- courage sweet drinks. The aim is to reach the adult audience found in the work- place, Kinsey said.

"Our background is in health, wellness, nutrition and diet, and combined with John's ability to gather the support of employers around the state, we think we will have a very successful project," Kinsey said.

The program takes the battle against heart disease and stroke into the workplace — and if successful, could make inroads against other chronic diseases like diabetes, said Melita Jordan, senior executive service director for the chronic disease prevention and control services unit of the state Health Department. The program's funding comes from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The toolkit will bring evidence-based strategies to employers, who can customize them for their particular situation. "We have case studies from businesses that show workplace wellness really works," Jordan said. "This is a valuable opportunity to get the message out, to save lives, reduce disability and improve the quality of life in New Jersey."

Sarno said he wants New Jersey "to be known as the healthy workplace state, and that is going to take an education campaign, with as many stakeholders as

possible to move the campaign forward." Sarno said EANJ will be joined by other employer trade groups, still to be selected. "The idea is for (the toolkit) to become a loose network, a consortium of employers" who share ideas about what is most effective in workplace wellness.

Small employers won't necessarily pay lower health insurance premiums if their employees become healthier, since many are pooled with other firms in the state's small-group market. But the small employ- er still benefits "because if their employees are healthier, they are less absent, more productive and more engaged — we're talking about a cultural change," Sarno said.

The physicians who belong to the Medical Society of New Jersey are constantly urging their patients to embrace wellness — and the society's employees want to become healthier.

Julie Lynch, chief operating officer of the society, said, "Our staff is telling us they want to be more fit, more active. We're trying to determine whether to start a walk-at- lunch club, or focus on healthy eating. We have people who participate in weight loss plans; maybe they could have their meeting here" during the work day. "We are looking to do things that involve more people, and it's not easy. A lot of people eat lunch at their desks, but we have some who walk at lunch time. It is better for everyone to take a break and take care of yourself. If you come back refreshed, you might have that new idea you were looking for."

E-mail to: beth@njbiz.com

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