Health is Serious Business at DaimlerChrysler

September 1, 2000
You could call Gordon Ondrisek a "StayWell groupie." The senior engineer at DaimlerChrysler regularly attends StayWell seminars, watches health videos from the on-site library, and even acts as a StayWell delegate to spread the word on wellness among his co-workers.

"I participate in everything the program offers," says Ondrisek, who works at the automaker's headquarters in Auburn Hills, Michigan. "It's something I've added to an already healthy lifestyle. It's a wonderful program and I'm glad it's here."

Enthusiastic employees like Ondrisek have helped the DaimlerChrysler/UAW National Wellness program to endure for 15 years. Through many changes at Chrysler, including its merger with Daimler-Benz AG in 1998, the program has been a mainstay of the corporation. It covers 81,000 employees at 26 locations nationwide and holds 23 gold-medal awards from Wellness Councils of America (WELCOA).

StayWell, an international provider of health management services, partners with DaimlerChrysler to implement the work-site wellness program. A total of 60 StayWell employees work right on DaimlerChrysler premises as wellness coordinators.

DaimlerChrysler receives a high return on its investment, which is why the automaker remains committed to the program.

A three-way collaboration between StayWell, DaimlerChrysler management and the autoworkers' union, UAW, has been instrumental in the program's success. Representatives from each body form a Wellness Advisory Committee, which holds on-site meetings to discuss the best approach for each location.

"At every location we identify the top risks," says Mary Kaufman, StayWell's senior program manager for DaimlerChrysler. "The program is basically the same throughout, but tweaked a little bit for individuals at each site."

The DaimlerChrysler/UAW National Wellness program includes employee health appraisals with voluntary questionnaires and blood screenings to assess factors such as stress, diet, fitness, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels. An online health-risk appraisal is also available.

If a site has a large number of employees with high blood pressure, for example, StayWell implements education programs to help diminish that problem. At every location, professional educators deliver seminars and workshops on topics that range from fitness to disease prevention. On average, two to five seminars are held each month.

"The workshops are always interactive, and they tell you to interrupt," says Ondrisek. "There's always time left to ask questions; they have to drag people out of there."

Site-wide campaigns help employees to jump-start their healthy lifestyles. During a campaign, employees might track their liquid intake or how many vegetable servings they eat each day. Participants earn WellBucks, which they can redeem for health-related items like pedometers or "veggie friends" stuffed animals.

While the wellness programs are designed to be fun, the objectives are serious. Individuals who are at risk in two or more health categories are eligible for the NextStep program, which involves telephone counseling from StayWell health experts at the St. Paul office.

"If you are at risk for nutrition, you would be hooked up with a registered dietitian," says Kaufman. "It is totally voluntary and it's totally confidential as well. The only information that DaimlerChrysler receives is aggregate."

Kaufman emphasizes that the program stops at prevention and healthy living; it is not a substitute for a doctor's care. Catering to different work schedules and job types is one of the biggest challenges of work-site wellness at a large corporation like DaimlerChrysler. An accounting executive's day is quite different from a warehouse employee's. In order to deal with this, StayWell provides tailored assessment and implementation approaches.

"In the transport center in Detroit, there are about 50 or 60 employees who work shifts that start every half hour," says Kaufman. "They come in about 10 minutes before their shift, and come back seven hours later to punch out again. That's definitely a challenging group to cater to."

In that situation, the StayWell coordinator communicates with workers during their short on-site stints and provides them with information to help incorporate healthy habits into their lives.

White-collar workers, on the other hand, have more flexibility and often can attend seminars during lunch hours.

Their risk factors also differ from those of employees in warehouse or factory settings.

Walter Horton, business analyst in the IS department, sees clear benefits in his employer's investment in employee health. "I believe that any company that's interested in employee productivity cannot live without [a program like] StayWell," he says. "It works hand in hand, your productivity and your health are inseparable."

Horton says the wellness initiatives help him to make health a top priority. He enjoys taking a break from the workday to attend seminars and is dedicated to eating well and working out at the on-site fitness center (not all DaimlerChrysler sites have fitness centers on the premises).

"My habits were not bad to start with," he says. "I don't smoke, don't drink, don't even drink coffee. I do benefit from some of the things offered in the program... and have made some changes. Right now my goal is to shed a few pounds and get in better condition."

Awareness, assessment, education, and maintenance are the building blocks of the StayWell program, says Dr. David Anderson, vice president of The StayWell Company.

"First, there's heightening awareness of health issues and healthy lifestyle," he explains. " Second, there are the assessment tools we use to make people aware of their risks, how they can make changes and what benefit those changes will have.

The third component is education or skill building, in which employees learn the skills they need to make changes. Then there's maintenance: it's easy to make changes, but difficult to sustain them. StayWell activities help people sustain healthy changes."

The program is a smashing success; 95 percent of employees who participate report that they are satisfied.

Anderson says that all the approaches are based on intensive research as well as evolution through application.

DaimlerChrysler helped pioneer the idea of tailoring wellness programs to high-risk groups. "Chrysler pushed us to move in this direction, and it became a testing opportunity," says Anderson. When the method was introduced in the 1980s it was cutting edge. Today, it is has become standard for work-site wellness programs to target high-risk populations.

The business case for a comprehensive wellness program like DaimlerChrysler's is clear. The Health Care Financing Administration predicts that by 2002, national health expenditures will total $2.1 trillion, about 16.6 percent of the nation's gross domestic product. It is estimated that about 60 percent of the money that private payers expend for employers and employees to purchase insurance is spent on health care.

Effective wellness programs have been shown to contain health-care costs, reduce absenteeism, and improve employee health.

The DaimlerChrysler wellness program is measured not by absentee rates, but in lower employee health risks and participant satisfaction. On this scale, the program is a smashing success; 95 percent of employees who participate report that they are satisfied.

The corporation does not disclose how much money it invests in wellness. But Anderson says it is clear that DaimlerChrysler receives a high return on its investment, which is why the automaker remains committed to the program.

In 1999, 23 DaimlerChrysler sites successfully applied for gold-medal status from WELCOA, a non-profit organization that promotes world-class corporate wellness programs. This achievement is exemplary, says Angela Baldwin, director of marketing for WELCOA. Out of 300 companies nationwide comprising one million employees, only 95 have earned gold medals.

"One exceptional thing about DaimlerChrysler's program is that they are good at getting the information out to all the employees," says Baldwin. "That's something companies struggle with all the time. "They are also driven by integrating the program into the way the company does business. It is important to the company and you can see it in the mission and vision statements."

In 1999, 36 percent of employees participated in the health appraisals and an even higher percentage attended the seminars. Some people, like Ondrisek and Horton, want to maintain healthy habits. Others want to lower high-risk factors, such as high blood pressure or obesity.

Constant, informal interaction with employees encourages the impressive rate of participation, explains StayWell program manager Kaufman.

"We spend a lot of time on the plant floor developing relationships that are so important in gaining the trust of people," she says. "When the relationship and the rapport are developed, it really fosters a person's desire to become involved in the formal program."

Word of mouth among employees also promotes enthusiasm for wellness. StayWell employee delegates like Ondrisek encourage co-workers to hop on the health wagon. The delegates promote upcoming events in their work areas and distribute printed information to their peers.

Family members, retirees, and contract workers are invited to join in as well.

"Our goal is to have healthy, happy people and part of that is the family," says Kaufman. "Family members can participate [in some of the programs] for a small additional charge. We put that in our a newsletter each month."

Employees also are encouraged to bring literature and other wellness tools from the on-site library into their private lives.

Wellness is woven so tightly into the fabric of DaimlerChrysler that it has become a part of the workplace environment.

"DaimlerChrysler has been at it so long and is so committed to the wellness program that it's become a way of doing business," adds Anderson. "It's a benchmark program, a role model for other companies.