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Resolution 2016: Change of heart Employers finding wellness programs can be good for a company's culture — and bottom line

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When Tiffiny Marinelli founded Energy in Motion, a Rockaway-based business specializing in group exercise instruction and corporate wellness seminars, nearly 20 years ago, she never could have predicted how the demand for her services would change.

When she started creating wellness programs in the 1990s, Marinelli worked with big, corporate clients such as AT&T, Lucent and Home Depot to develop wellness perk programs to sweeten the compensation package for employees.

Today, she focuses on the smaller businesses that look to wellness as A way to put a lid on health care costs.

“There are many smaller companies with less resources and less ability to drive a culture of wellness within their company,” Marinelli said.

The market for corporate wellness products and services has exploded. And with products even Marinelli couldn’t have predicted.

Take The Fruit Guys, a national organic fresh fruit delivery service that started in San Francisco but is expanding rapidly on the East Coast.

Drew Dix has been the director of sales development since 2010. According to Dix, who works out of the company’s Maplewood office, The Fruit Guys delivers fresh fruit to more than 4,000 businesses around the country.

Dix has had a front-row seat to the emerging wellness trend.

“The biggest change we’ve seen is that companies are adopting a new position called a wellness director or a wellness manager, and that did not exist 20 years ago,” he said. “It’s always been in the realm of HR to dictate employee benefits. But the concept of wellness has evolved from a flu shot and an HSA to weight loss, nutrition and fitness programs. That role is still part of HR, but we’ve seen a lot of companies make that a full-time job.”

“If you invest in your employees, you get that tangible return
as well as less sick days, better morale, (and) higher retention rate.”
Drew Dix, director of sales development, The Fruit Guys

Companies of all sizes and industries across the state are getting serious about their employee wellness and health improvement programs for many reasons.

Healthier employees mean lower insurance rates for employers. More and more companies are designing and implementing health improvement strategies to mitigate the costs of unhealthy employees and avoid the types of high claims that lead to rate hikes.

“Health care rates are getting higher and will probably continue to rise,” Marinelli said. “People already are struggling to afford the rates. If you can get employees healthy and you can help them manage their chronic conditions, you will see a huge change in the overall cost of health care benefits.”

In 2014, the Affordable Care Act made wellness a priority for health insurance providers by creating a set of rules mandating providers incentivize corporate wellness programs and reward individuals for engaging in healthy behaviors.

Brian Marshall, manager of wellness at the Cranbury-based AmeriHealth, sees the change every day.

“The ACA forces us to be creative and inclusive to make sure our wellness incentives are targeting everyone,” he said. “Instead of treating the disease, we want to treat the person. Since the ACA was enacted, there are no costs associated to wellness screenings such as mammograms, colonoscopy and immunizations, and that has opened up preventative care to people who may not have realized it was available before.”

AmeriHealth, for example, rewards fitness milestones and healthy behavior by reimbursing individuals for participating in fitness programs, stress management activities, flu shots, dentist visits and parenting classes.

Starting an effective wellness program
When a company first launches a wellness program, it’s best to start by dipping a toe in the pool rather than throwing employees into the deep end.  
John Gallucci, founder and president of JAG Physical Therapy, an orthopedic physical therapy provider with multiple locations throughout New Jersey, has worked with many corporate clients as part of their employee wellness programs.
Gallucchi believes the best way to get started is with educational programs. He says he has led many successful “lunch and learn” sessions on a range of topics, including the health risks of siting all day and how to mitigate them, how to fight dehydration, proper ergonomics and avoiding sports-related injuries.
“There are a lot of weekend warriors out there who don’t engage in physical activity all week then go out and play a few pickup games one night and get hurt,” Gallucchi said. “Sports-related injuries contribute to absenteeism and poor productivity.”  
Tiffiny Marinelli, founder of Rockaway-based Energy in Motion, suggests kicking off any corporate wellness program with an activity employees will actually look forward to.
“If a client is just getting started and they really don’t have a company culture of wellness, the first thing I do is introduce something that is really fun for employees and build on that positive experience,” Marinelli said. “An example could be a stress management program where we bring in a massage therapist, yoga teacher or meditation expert. Other fun ways to get started include a session on how to de-stress at your desk, cooking demonstrations or walking programs.”
Employee wellness is a business strategy and should be treated like one.
Marinelli recommends companies establish a mission statement or a business plan for improving the health of their employees. By documenting a plan, businesses can allocate budgets and measure effectiveness of the various aspects of the wellness program.
Marinelli has been in the corporate wellness industry for more than 20 years and said that for a health improvement program to be effective and actually save a money for a company, wellness has to be part of the company culture.
“An emphasis on wellness has to come from the top down and executive management has to play a role,” she said. “It’s important that organizational policies promote wellness by encourage healthy choices and educating the employees on health improvement.”

“It’s all self-reported through our online portal, which gets people engaged with managing their own care,” Marshall said.

Marshall said he foresees two corporate wellness trends gaining momentum in 2016.

“One trend we are seeing is employer groups are becoming much more active in designing their own programs,” he said. “At one time, corporate clients looked to us as subject matter experts. Now, they look to us as partners in the process and they come to the table with more of an understanding of what most effective strategies for their group would be.”

Marshall also predicts companies will offer more incentives to employees for participating in the wellness programs. These incentives are not just in the form of reduced premiums being passed on to employees, but they will offer time off, better working environments and other perks in exchange for participation.

Marinelli has seen the carrot-and-stick approach work for many companies.

“Depending on how much money a company has, a wellness program should be incentivized, even if it’s a small amount,” she said.

By way of example, Marinelli said employees might be hesitant about biometric screenings because of privacy concerns. A company should incentivize that initial screening with raffles or gift cards for people who attend. Through the program, the company educates employees on the personal benefits of doing the screening, such as saving a trip to the primary care doctor and getting immediate results.

Over time, the company has another screening and promotes it by reminding employees about the positive experience they had at the last screening. But this time, instead of a gift card, you offer to lower their premiums.

“It’s a much more effective process than telling employees, ‘If you don’t get this screening, you’ll have to pay more for your premium,’” Marinelli said.

In addition to lowering health care costs, companies continue to leverage wellness as a retention perk.

“If you invest in your employees, you get that tangible return as well as less sick days, better morale, (and) higher retention rate,” Dix said. “If you walk into a startup and see pingpong tables and video games, what you are really looking at is a company competing for top talent. Fresh fruit and other wellness perks are also part of an effective retention package.”

Marinelli said not all companies are ready to take this approach to wellness.

“But, companies that are innovative and can look ahead to see where things are going with regard to health care and they want their companies to survive, they are going to get more serious about wellness,” she said.

E-mail to: dariam@njbiz.com

On Twitter: @dariameoli

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