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‘A healthy work force is a more productive work force’

L- right are:  Cindi Elstien director human resources Alper Services  holding their last wellness award  employee Bill

L- right are: Cindi Elstien, director of human resources at Alper Services, holding their last wellness award, employee Bill McGrath and Howard C. Alper (CPCU, ARM, Chairman and CEO of Alper) who all actively participate in the companies wellness program. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: November 4, 2011 2:58PM

With help from her employer, Deerfield resident Leah Molay has gone from walking a mile and a half a day to walking about 10 and has lowered her blood pressure and cholesterol and dropped 105 pounds.

She’s among 13,000 — nearly 40 percent — of Allstate employees who signed up for a new walking-focused, technology-driven wellness program that includes competitions with awards.

Free karate and yoga classes; biggest-loser weight reduction contests with prizes, and incentives to encourage employees to go to the doctor are among creative initiatives that have emerged in wellness programs at small and large employers. These programs are expanding and increasingly making use of technology.

Chicago-based Alper Services provides free fresh organic fruit for workers. The insurance brokerage and consulting company, which employs 46 people, also has had a chiropractor come in to provide massages and spinal evaluations and offered free on-site yoga and nutrition classes. And in a biggest- loser weight-loss competition this year, the winner received $250 and an extra vacation day.

Such programs “help you perform better,” said Bill McGrath, 37, director of finance at Alper and the winner of the competition.

He lost 27 pounds by playing indoor soccer, practicing martial arts and changing his eating habits. He says he has more energy and feels better.

McGrath’s winning team members received $50 each, said Cindi Ferrara Elstien, senior vice president of human resources, who detailed the company’s programs.

Smokers are required to pay $30 to $50 more a month on their health insurance premiums, and employees who participate in free and confidential health-risk evaluations get $20-a-month discount on their premiums, Elstien said. The health-risk evaluations include checking blood pressure and cholesterol levels and testing for diabetes, and diseases of the liver, kidney, blood, bone and muscle.

Alper has invested an average of roughly $5,800 a year in such programs since they were launched about five years ago, Elstien said. Use of sick days has fallen about 20 percent, she said.

For every dollar spent on wellness programs by employers, medical costs were reduced by about $3.27 and absenteeism costs reduced about $2.73, according to a report on U.S. workplace disease-prevention and wellness programs by Health Affairs, a health policy research journal. Studies have shown wellness programs can provide a return on investment of between $3 and $6 for every dollar spent, said Mark Schmit, director of research at the Society for Human Resource Management.

Besides helping lower health-care costs, “the real pot of gold has to do with a healthy work force is a much more productive work force,” said Dr. Paul Handel, chief medical officer of Health Care Service Corp.

Robinson Engineering, based in South Holland, has enjoyed a 10-1 return on investment since launching a wellness program in 2007, said Denise St. Pierre, organizational development manager at the 104-employee firm.

The wellness program includes quarterly “lunch and learn” sessions for employees covering topics such as stress reduction, nutrition and ergonomics; potlucks for which wellness committee members provide healthy dishes and share recipes, and group activities such as lunch walks and weight-loss and walking competitions.

In 2007, the firm began offering confidential voluntary health screenings and 46 percent of employees participated.

In 2010, that rose to 100 percent after employees were told that if they didn’t participate, they would have to pay part of the cost of their insurance premiums, St. Pierre said. From 2009 to 2010, 54 percent of employees with poor cholesterol improved, and 60 percent with poor glucose improved, St. Pierre said.

Allstate recently partnered with GlobalFit, a wellness benefits provider, to implement a Web-based program called Destination: You.

The program promotes walking and uses pedometer-like activity trackers that employees attach to their shoes to record how many steps they take each day, how far they walk and how many calories they burn. The information is uploaded to a personal website that tracks and manages each employee’s physical activity and goals.

Employees who log at least one million steps in the program are eligible for $50 deposits into their health reimbursement accounts, plus an additional $50 for a spouse or significant other who logs that many steps.

The program allows for “fun team competitions,” said Ned Kyle, benefits director at Northbrook-based Allstate.

“Maybe the over 50-year-olds will challenge the under 30-year-olds to do a competition over the weekend,” he said. “If you’re part of a team, then your steps are shared, but if you want to do this on your own, it’s password protected and can be very private. It’s up to the individual.”

Molay won a $75 prize through one of the competitions, partly by logging 25 miles in one day.

“The nice thing about the program is you can monitor how you’re doing against your peers,” she said. “The camaraderie with people that you’re doing this with helps you continue to do the walking. It’s at no cost to us and you have people to help encourage you a long the way.”

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