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Wellness Pays Off

December 1, 1997
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Related Topics: Health and Wellness, Featured Article
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Two months ago, President Bill Clinton was fitted for two hearing aids. By overcoming his reluctance to admit hearing loss, he set a positive tone for aging baby boomers.

Indeed, many worry that memory loss, failing eyesight and gray hair will make them appear older or less effective than they are. And being effective is of great concern to baby boomers -- especially as they age. The good news is that they're accomplishing this effectiveness by working hard. The bad news is that these accomplishments come at the expense of their health. "Everybody knows how to work harder and develop new skills. But we're not taught how to take care of ourselves," says Tatsuo Hirano, a doctor of oriental medicine and a licensed acupuncturist in Glendale, California. He increasingly has treated boomers for problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome, Epstein-Barr Virus and fibromyalgia. Boomers also face heart disease. According to the American Heart Association, heart disease is the No. 1 killer in the United States, accounting for 41 percent of all deaths.

Because poor health of aging boomers translates to both decreased productivity and increased health-care costs, it's important for HR professionals to pay attention to prevention. According to New York City-based William M. Mercer Inc., employers nationwide devote approximately 95 percent of health-benefits expenses to treating illnesses. Expenses could be significantly decreased by shifting more resources to preventive care and health-promotion.

To be truly effective, such efforts should go beyond focusing solely on physical health. According to Dr. Bill Hettler, co-founder of the Stevens Point, Wisconsin-based National Wellness Institute, a nonprofit organization assisting professionals working in the health-promotion industry, wellness embraces six dimensions: social, occupational, spiritual, physical, intellectual and emotional.

The employer benefit speaks for itself. Just take a look at the examples cited by the Omaha, Nebraska-based Wellness Councils of America:

  • Providence General Hospital in Everett, Washington, saved an estimated $1.5 million, or a cost-benefit ratio of 1 to 4.24, over the three years of an outcomes-based employee health-benefits program. By offering financial incentives to employees who demonstrate responsibility for their health and fitness based on set criteria, the program showed reduced use of health benefits, lower medical claims and less absenteeism.
  • The Stay Alive & Well program at Las Vegas-based Reynolds Electrical & Engineering Co. reported more than 50 percent participation out of 1,600 employees. The cost per employee was $76.24, and the resulting savings were $127.89 per participant with a benefit to cost ratio of 1.68 to 1.

And the benefits go beyond just cost savings. The bottom line is that by promoting wellness, companies can expect greater productivity and company loyalty from aging boomers. "People who put wellness in a box and only expect absolute cost savings are shortsighted," says Jeff Rubleski, chief operating officer of Omaha, Nebraska-based Wellness Councils of America.

Workforce, December 1997, Vol. 76, No. 12, p. 52.

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