Policies on Wellness Impact Employee Health, Bottom Line

By Lois Baker

Release Date: May 24, 2006

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Start-up data from an innovative $1 million demonstration project being conducted in Western New York suggests that if the organization you work for is concerned with wellness, it may affect how healthy you are.

The finding is the first outcome from the Western New York Wellness Works (WNYWW) project, being coordinated by the School of Public Health and Health Professions at the University at Buffalo. The project is providing matching grants to 13 companies and organizations to develop wellness programs and assessments aimed at improving employee health and lowering health-care costs.

Project participants were selected last fall from 26 proposals submitted by employers from Erie, Niagara and Chautauqua counties. The New York State Senate and Sen. Mary-Lou Rath, who developed the program's original concept, provided the funding.

"By bringing together New York State, the University at Buffalo and the Buffalo-Niagara private sector, the Western New York Wellness Works initiative has become one of the first partnerships of its type in the country," said Rath. "The data collected through this effort will help drive future public policy as we look to find creative solutions to increase health and wellness and reduce the skyrocketing price of health care.

"It is my great hope that the Wellness Works initiative will become a sustainable and innovative way to enhance Western New York's health and well-being, while at the same time improving the private sector's productivity," Rath said.

Joan Dorn, Ph.D., UB associate professor of social and preventive medicine, is principal investigator on the project.

"The overall goal of the project is to collect valid and reliable data on various wellness programs in Western New York, and to document that worksite-wellness programs can reduce individual health risks and save employers money on escalating insurance costs," said Dorn.

Participating employers are: Better Baked Foods of Westfield; Mark IV Industries, Inc., the Rehab Center of Olean and Hodgson Russ in conjunction with Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Western New York; Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus; Clymer School District; Daemen College; Erie Community College; Jamestown School District; Greater Buffalo Savings Bank; Independent Health; Mt. St. Mary's Hospital/Stella Niagara; Niagara Frontier Auto Dealers; People Inc.; and Greatbatch, Inc.

Each employer developed a wellness program tailored to the needs of its employees; examples are nutrition education, physical activity promotion, weight management and stress reduction. Programs began in June 2005 and will be evaluated again in January 2007.

As a first step, participating employers were required to complete a comprehensive "health of the working environment" assessment called Heart Check Plus. Employees were encouraged to complete confidential individual health surveys and receive a baseline personal health-risk assessment.

Nearly 2,800 employees completed the survey. The respondents were relatively young: the average age of women was 43 years and of men, 41.6. Preliminary analysis of the surveys provided good news and some not-so-good news.

The good news:

- Approximately 83 percent of employees who completed the survey reported exercising at least once a week, and more than one-fourth exercised four or more times a week

- Three-fourths use their seatbelts all of the time, and another 15 percent use seatbelts 90-99 percent of the time

- Only 15 percent would qualify as moderate-to-heavy drinkers

- 83 percent rate their health as excellent, very good or good

The not-so-good news:

- 20 percent of respondents still smoke

- 61 percent are overweight to extremely obese

- Half don't know their blood pressure reading

- 28 percent eat three or more servings of high-fat food every day, while another 62 percent have 1-2 servings

Other results showed that nearly two-thirds of participants didn't know, or didn't report, their total cholesterol, and of those who did, 11 percent had a cholesterol level of 200 or higher, which is considered above normal. Only 20 percent got the recommended eight hours of sleep a night and one-third reported sleeping six hours or less.

Only two worksites received scores of 60 percent or above on their environmental health assessments. A comparison of these employers with the lower-scoring companies, based on their aggregate employee health assessments, showed that fewer employees of the higher-scoring companies were overweight or obese. They had a lower body mass index, reported fewer days lost to illness, and more employees reported exercising three or more times a week.

"Overall, the majority of WNYWW companies scored above the 75th percentile on the various components of the environmental assessment, compared to more than 1,000 other New York State companies that have completed the assessment," said Dorn.

"Although these baseline scores are encouraging, the organizations hope to see even higher Heart Check Plus scores at the conclusion of their 18-month, wellness-intervention programs and environmental changes. Employees will be able to see the results of lifestyle changes they make by completing a follow-up health assessment at the end of each company's program," she said.

"This data will be used to educate employers, employees, researchers and policymakers about the money-saving and life-saving benefits of wellness programs."