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Labor and Management Build a Prescription for Health

Optimas 2001 - Partnership: DaimlerChrysler and the United Auto Workers have a wellness program that pays for itself.

February 28, 2001
In an agreeable alliance between labor, management, and suppliers, the DaimlerChrysler/UAW National Wellness Program is soothing traditional tensions between unions and employers. "It's truly a partnership," says Teresa Bartlett, senior manager of disability and medical health-care programs for DaimlerChrysler Corporation. "We've never encountered disagreement at all."

    The 15-year-old program is a negotiated benefit between DaimlerChrysler and the autoworkers' union, UAW. DaimlerChrysler and the union work with third-party providers to make health-promotion and prevention initiatives available to more than 90,000 employees at 35 major locations nationwide. The availability of programs and number of on-site coordinators depend on the site's employee population and size.

    The extensive program has endured Chrysler's 1998 merger with Daimler-Benz and other major organizational and industry changes. The corporation faces yet another challenging era following the announcement that it will chop 26,000 Chrysler jobs, including several thousand in the United States. Through it all, wellness continues to be a part of life at DaimlerChrysler.

    "It's been a very good partnership and has been beneficial for our [union] members as well as DaimlerChrysler," says Kenneth Young, coordinator of the DaimlerChrysler/UAW benefits program. "People in the plants are appreciative of the programs they put on."

    Young has represented union interests in the program since its inception and was instrumental in its development. He says the program not only is helpful in maintaining employee health, but also has on occasion targeted and addressed a serious health risk in an employee.

    At the core of the collaboration is the Wellness Advisory Council. The council meets quarterly, and is usually composed of six representatives who gather at DaimlerChrysler's headquarters in Auburn Hills, Michigan. "We are truly a team," says Bartlett. "All of the partners come together and report what's going on, how many people participated, what types of road blocks were faced, and so on. We strategize about where we should target the programs."

    All U.S. locations with at least 500 employees have contracts with on-site health and fitness business partners. These coordinators spend their days in offices and warehouses and on factory floors encouraging employees to take part in health activities and gauging health concerns. The StayWell Company manages programs at 26 DaimlerChrysler locations and has 60 on-site coordinators working full-time.

    The American Institute of Preventive Medicine manages the wellness program at seven sites. "We believe in empowering employees to make better health-care decisions," says Don R. Powell of AIPM. "We feel that people need to learn skills, which goes along with education. It's also important to motivate people, whether through incentives, positive reinforcement, or support groups."

    The DaimlerChrysler/UAW National Wellness program won the 2000 C. Everett Koop National Health Award and has also won 29 gold-medal awards from the Wellness Councils of America (WELCOA).

    The program's success is measured through health-risk assessments, employee satisfaction surveys, and outside research. Evaluation results make a strong case to all members of the team - labor, management, and suppliers. "You've got research that validates that the program does a lot of things," says Joan Bassing, national program director for StayWell Health Management. "It helps people stay healthy and come to their jobs day in and day out."

    The program covers a large, geographically spread-out population. It is imperative for site coordinators to maintain strong ties with one another and with headquarters. "One thing that's a challenge for the field sites is communication," says Ed Gonzalez, program manager for StayWell. "We address that challenge very well. We try to make sure that each individual person feels like part of the bigger picture."

    Awareness, education, maintenance, and assessment make up the main components of the program. The Advisory Council develops and upholds guidelines, while allowing for flexibility to meet individual employees' health needs. Each site coordinator then works closely with employees to tailor the programs. Activities cover areas such as nutrition, exercise, injury prevention, mental health, driver safety, and smoking cessation.

    Employees voluntarily attend one-time workshops, multi-session seminars, individual counseling, and self-directed exercises. They can also participate in maintenance strategies, including blood screenings, awareness campaigns, incentive programs, and follow-up. Some sites also offer health-oriented amenities, such as workout facilities and videos and literature for employees to take home.

    StayWell's NextStepstm Focused Interventions is a lifestyle risk counseling program that provides assistance via telephone and mail. If an employee is trying to lose weight, for example, he can partake in telephone counseling sessions while he works toward his goal. On average, DaimlerChrysler participants in NextSteps lowered their health risks by 12 percent, whereas non-participants increased their health risks by 2 percent. Program administrators stress that all activities focus on prevention and health promotion and are not meant to replace a doctor's care.

    A major success of the program is its ability to cater to different work schedules and job types. At a site where workers do a lot of heavy lifting, for example, StayWell holds seminars on preventing back injury and workshops to strengthen back muscles. In a white-collar setting, activities might focus on eyestrain or coping with stress. "We are not changing the employees so they can meet our needs, but changing our program so that we can meet the employees' needs," Gonzalez says.

    Employee delegates volunteer to spread the word in their departments by distributing promotional material and talking with colleagues. Some employees attend almost all the activities, while others choose to participate only in those that interest them specifically. Family members, retirees, and contract workers are also encouraged to participate.

    The DaimlerChrysler/UAW program has raised the bar in corporate wellness. In the 1980s it introduced the concept of tailoring programs to high-risk groups. Today, that method has become the standard in work-site wellness.

    The Wellness Advisory Council ensures that the programs meet employees' current needs, no matter what factors might affect their health. Most recently, the corporation has faced well-publicized performance problems. "We try to be sensitive to what's going on with the world of our customers," says Bassing. "For example, with the merger there was a lot of uncertainty, and we were able to increase the number of classes in resiliency, stress management, and how to deal with ambiguity."

    Outcomes are measured in lower health risks, participation, and employee satisfaction. In 1999, 36 percent of employees participated in health-risk appraisals and an even higher percentage attended the seminars. Surveys show that 95 percent of employees who participate are satisfied.

    In 1999, appraisal data showed that 4,184 white-collar participants had significantly lowered their health risks. Driving-habits risk decreased 42 percent, smoking risk decreased 27 percent, high-risk alcohol consumption decreased 39 percent, and mental-health risk decreased 20 percent.

    Research also validates a financial return on investment. The Health Care Financing Administration predicts that by 2002, national health expenditures will total $2.1 trillion. Effective wellness programs have been shown to contain health-care costs, reduce absenteeism, and improve employee health.

    Researchers at the University of Rochester studied data from the program from 1997. They found that employees who completed one, two, or three health-risk assessments had, on average, lower health-care costs of $112.89, $152.29, and $134.22, respectively. Over time, the differences in health-care costs between participants and non-participants have ranged between $5 and $16 per employee, per month.

    "Just in terms of direct medical costs, the program pays for itself," says Bassing. "That helps management say, 'We're not losing money on this program. Let's find someplace else to cut costs.' We respond just like other vendors in finding ways to cut costs and to streamline."

    The wellness program underwent extensive measurement for the C. Everett Koop Award. It met high standards as a quality, cost-effective program to help employees to improve their health and become wise health-care consumers. "We have a goal this year to enhance our measurements even further and hone them better," says Bartlett. "The wellness industry is hungry for data to prove whether or not tools are effective, and programs work."

Workforce, March 2001, pp. 50-52 Subscribe Now!