The No. 1 concern of midsize business owners and executives is the cost of health care insurance, according to a survey in May by the ADP Research Institute.
Wellness advocates, though, promote a different focus. Instead of seeing the bottom line as the dollar cost of health insurance, employers should look toward the potential savings to be had with a healthy workforce, said Thomas Parry, president of the Integrated Benefits Institute, a not-for-profit research group focusing on the business value of workforce health.
"If health declines, employers can expect to have more absenteeism, more occupational injuries, more disabilities,' said Parry, whose organization works with 750 companies in the United States.
Costs of ill health are evenly divided between medical care and lost productivity/absenteeism, an Integrated Benefits survey showed.
"I think employers realize this is a bigger issue than simply health care costs," Parry said.
Employers' financial incentives
Indeed, employers can save on average $3 for every $1 invested in improving employee health, according to The Wellness Council of America.
IBM, a pioneer in wellness incentives, offers rebates to employees in the United States based on exercise, healthy eating/weight loss, smoking cessation, health-risk appraisals and the health of their children. Employees choose two categories from which to receive rebates of up to $300 annually.
During the early years of the program, between 2005 and 2007, IBM saved $190 million in health care costs, according to spokeswoman Laurie Friedman.
Providing employees with blood pressure, cholesterol, triglyceride and height-to-weight index numbers is a first step in a wellness plan, said Derek Yach, senior vice president of the Vitality Group, an actuarial-based wellness program provider. The next step is showing employees how to improve their numbers.
Lack of resources
Small- and medium-size businesses have mostly been left out of the wellness movement because of a lack of resources, according to a 2011 survey by the National Business Coalition on Health, the National Safety Council and the Centers for Disease Control.
With that challenge in mind, the Orange County Chamber of Commerce and the Monroe branch of the Middletown YMCA are in talks to provide wellness activities for small businesses.
Ross Miceli, executive director of the Monroe branch, said he was aiming to see how "the YMCA could be the gym of choice for the employees of small business."
Employers with 10 or fewer workers represent 80 percent of the chamber membership, said Bill Fioravanti, vice president of membership development and services. Fioravanti previously held a similar position with the YMCA.
"We think it's something that could be a benefit to our members," Fioravanti said. "It's still conceptual, but we'd hope to be able to introduce it within the next few months."
A wellness menu
United Healthcare is Ulster County's largest private employer, with 700 workers on site in the Town of Ulster.
Its gym has a treadmill, an elliptical trainer, a rower and a recumbent bike. Employees get a 25 percent discount when they start Weight Watchers, and another 25 percent after 10 meetings.
Posted details about fat, salt and calories in cafeteria meals, biometric screenings, a walkway around the building and plans for yoga classes add up to a full-court press for fitness.
"Our employees are at their desks all day long, and they need opportunities to move around," said Eileen Liverani, the senior site director.
Colleen VanCuren, audit director and 'wellness champion' — a workplace moniker — said about half of the employees use the walkway. Wellness champions like VanCuren bring health-oriented programs to their work sites. They go to United Healthcare Group's main office in Minnetonka, Minn., to discuss program updates and consider new ones such as meditation.
United Healthcare employee Polly Lesperance of Saugerties exercises to keep weight off and her blood pressure in check.
"I come here in the morning and at lunch," Lesperance said after using a rowing machine, "and then in the afternoon, I walk around the building. Even in the rain."
Co-worker Janet Dickson of the Town of Kingston uses the treadmill and the Weight Watcher's program. "I'm here 15 to 20 minutes before work," she said, "and every lunchtime."