Workers working out: Maryland companies help employees stay healthy -- Gazette.Net






Since opening about a year ago, MedImmune's 9,800-square-foot employee fitness center at the biotech’s Gaithersburg headquarters has been a hit, executives say.

Some 68 percent of MedImmune's 2,000 employees there are enrolled, with about 170 per day lifting the weights among the 60 pieces of state-of-the-art exercise equipment. The center includes two studios and locker rooms and recently was awarded gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental design for recycling construction waste, incorporating energy-efficient lighting and using products made from recyclable materials.

The impetus behind opening the facility was to enhance the company's offerings of wellness programs, said Julie Childress, senior director for human resources operations.

"We realized we needed to cultivate a culture that goes with work-life balance in a demanding industry like ours," she said.

Facing continually rising medical insurance premiums, more Maryland companies are opening gyms and expanding wellness programs that executives say help keep employees healthier, reduce absenteeism and stress, and perhaps even cut insurance costs.

For every dollar a company spends on wellness programs, it saves $3.27 in medical costs and $2.73 in absenteeism costs, according to a 2010 Harvard University study. Such savings are increasingly important when the cost to companies of the average family health insurance premium per employee in Maryland increased by 27 percent in the last four years to almost $11,000, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“This average return on investment suggests that the wider adoption of such programs could prove beneficial for budgets and productivity as well as health outcomes,” Harvard researchers said in the study. Besides savings in medical and absenteeism costs, wellness programs can help reduce employee turnover, attract new workers and lower costs for public programs like disability insurance and Medicare, they said.

Gyms becoming more prevalent

Corporate gyms are gaining in popularity, with 27 percent of companies in the South — which includes Maryland — that offer employees medical insurance either having an exercise facility or giving discounts for employees to join a gym, according to an annual survey of health benefits by Kaiser. That was up from 21 percent in 2008.

Other Maryland companies that have corporate gyms include Beltsville social marketing and software company Vocus and hoteliers Marriott International of Bethesda and Choice Hotels International, which is moving next year from Silver Spring to Rockville. Marriott has had a gym at its headquarters for more than three decades, said Jill Berger, vice president of health and welfare. About 20 percent of its 3,000 employees there take advantage of it, she said.

But it’s in the last two years that Marriott — the only Maryland company on this year’s annual Fortune magazine list of the 100 best companies to work for — has developed a more expansive and robust wellness strategy, expanding offerings to weight-loss programs, yoga classes, health assessments and exercise challenges. About 300 employees participated in a 5K run/1K walk Sunday as one part of Marriott’s “TakeCare” wellness program.

“We want to engage our associates to take advantage of these programs and maintain their health,” Berger said. “Participation has increased.”

Vocus’ state-of-the-art fitness center is open 24 hours per day, seven days per week to employees and some 35 percent of its 500 employees at the headquarters use the gym, said Stacey Acevero, social media community manager. The company also provides a half basketball court and fitness boot camp and yoga classes, as well as salads, fruit and protein shakes in its employee café. One employee improves her health by walking more than five miles per day while at work, she said.

“It was very important to [CEO] Rick Rudman that Vocus offered a healthy work-life balance to increase the productivity and, most importantly, happiness of his employees,” Acevero said.

Some companies have own health clinics

Then there are companies that provide employees full-scale health clinics. Media giant Discovery Communications has offered a medical clinic staffed with physicians and other medical personnel that is free for employees and their dependents at its Silver Spring headquarters since 2006.

The clinic alone has saved the company an average of $1.2 million per year in health care costs, said Evelyne Steward, vice president of global life work and inclusion. About 85 percent of Discovery’s 1,500 employees use the clinic’s services on a regular basis, and services have expanded in recent years to include mental health, nutrition, dermatology and even dentistry. More than half of employees there use the service as their primary care.

“Every year, we look at how we can push the envelope and offer more,” Steward said. “Our employees can get more personalized care there than they might receive at an outside office.”

Discovery also has added clinics at its offices in New York, Miami and Sterling, Va. In addition, the company provides treadmill work stations around its headquarters where employees can work on a laptop as they exercise, yoga classes, life coaches and free intensive “gladiator” boot camps.

“One employee lost 30 pounds through the boot camp,” Steward said.

Discovery also co-founded, with Montgomery County, the nonprofit Alliance for Workplace Excellence more than a decade ago to recognize local companies with effective wellness programs.

Although Discovery offers reimbursements for employees to join an outside gym and even funds shoes for those who walk to work, it does not have an onsite exercise facility.

“We have talked about putting in a gym, but our employees have said in surveys and focus groups we’ve done that they prefer to use gyms near their homes,” Steward said.

Marriott has a health clinic at its headquarters, and some of its properties have clinics, Berger said. MedImmune, the global biologics arm of AstraZeneca of London, opened an on-site clinic in Gaithersburg in April and one more recently at its Frederick manufacturing facility.

“We are still working on our programs,” Childress said. “We plan to offer free health screenings with breast cancer awareness month being in October. There will be seminars on topics like nutrition and stress management.” The biotech also reimburses employees at sites outside Gaithersburg for gym memberships.

Marriott, Discovery and MedImmune are in the process of assessing their wellness programs’ overall savings impact.

“It can be difficult to gauge exactly how reimbursing an employee’s gym membership affects our health care costs,” Steward said. “But we think there is an impact.”

Smaller companies slower to build wellness programs

Smaller employers with fewer resources available for wellness programs naturally have been slower to offer such programs, Harvard researchers found.

But still, some small to mid-sized businesses in Maryland have jumped on the wellness trend. Bethesda beverage company Honest Tea provided reimbursement for gym memberships and encouraged bicycling to work well before it was bought by Coca-Cola and grew to more than 100 employees.

About 80 percent of corporate wellness programs focus on more than one wellness area, including stress management, back care, nutrition, alcohol consumption, blood pressure, smoking and obesity, according to the Harvard study.

Some 63 percent of companies nationally that provided health benefits in 2012 offered some sort of wellness program, up from 54 percent in 2008, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

More companies plan to increase incentives such as gift cards and contributions to health savings accounts that they offer to employees to participate in wellness programs this year, according to a survey by Fidelity Investments and the National Business Group on Health. The average incentive value last year was $460, almost double what it was in 2009. The average employer spent $169 per employee on wellness programs last year, up from $108 in 2009.

About 10 percent of companies required employees to complete a health-risk assessment to be eligible for medical benefits this year, up from 7 percent last year.

“Employers are increasingly expecting employees to take steps to improve their health,” Helen Darling, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C., health business group, said in a statement. “This isn’t surprising given how much control employees can have over their own health and how much poor health habits cost employers,” she said.