Healthy Hawaii Workplaces Help Cope With Sick Economy

This article originally appeared in the Pacific Business News in May 2009
Healthy Hawaii Workplaces Help Cope With Sick Economy (Pacific Business News) - May 2009

By Linda Chiem

Managers at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel on the Big Island launched a workplace wellness program about three years ago with a weight-loss challenge to get employees to eat and live healthier.

More than 100 employees accepted the challenge, combining to lose more than 1,000 pounds. The program soon expanded to include walking groups, nutritional counseling and stress-management classes. Today, employees accumulate points by participating in healthy activities and are rewarded with additional paid days off and $150 cash payments. Not even the Oct. 15, 2006, earthquake, which forced the hotel to close for two years for repairs and renovation, curbed the program’s popularity.

“Employers recognize that healthy team members do a better job at whatever your business is,” said Gary Rockwood, president of Mauna Kea Resort Services LLC and former director of human resources for Prince Resorts Hawaii, which operates the Mauna Kea and three other resorts in the state. “Based on that result, we knew that there was a motivation, so we all agreed to do it again in 2009 even with the economic downturn.”

As soaring health-care costs create increased awareness of healthy-living practices, Hawaii employers are keeping or expanding workplace wellness programs. The goal is to encourage employees to become more active and eat smart, which should lead to lower insurance premiums and fewer sick days. That is especially motivating for Hawaii employers who bear the brunt of health-care costs — state law requires them to offer health insurance to their workers. Local health plans, including Hawaii Medical Service Association and Kaiser Permanente, are seeing strong demand for their respective workplace wellness programs, which focus on employee health risk assessments, biometric screenings and preventive health education.

The cost of both HMSA and Kaiser’s workplace wellness programs are built into each employers’ benefit package. Although it varies, employers can expect to spend an average of $150 to $200 per participant to establish a formal program. “In an economy like the one we have right now, employers are really understanding about the need to keep their employees healthy and the programs really emphasize, ‘You’re a valuable employee to me’,” said Caryn Ireland, vice president of Integrated Services Inc., an HMSA subsidiary that runs its HealthPass program. Employers that participated in HealthPass between 2002 and 2005 saw a $2.40 return on every $1 they invested in the wellness program, according to a 2006 report compiled by HMSA and HealthMedia, a health research group based in Ann Arbor, Mich.

HMSA plans to update that report later this year to include 2006-2008 statistics. “Judging by how busy we are, employers are getting more active in doing something for their employees’ health,” said Suzanne Fields, sales manager for Kaiser Permanente Hawaii’s On-the-Job and HealthWorks programs. “They are really seeing that we’ve really gotten what we can out of the premiums and realize they have to look much closer at what’s happening to their employees. I don’t see them cutting back, but they’re finding different ways to connect with their folks.” Bonnie Pang, benefit consulting manager for Atlas Insurance Agency, said starting a program doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. It could be as simple as organizing walking groups at lunch and taking stretching breaks at the desk. Atlas switched out its vending machines to offer healthier drinks and snacks and employees participate in group walking challenges and Weight Watchers.

Pang said employers struggle with how to measure whether a program has a direct payoff, but they are seeing improved employee morale and productivity.

“It’s hard to measure, but employers see that their employees feel better, have a better attitude and are taking care of their customers better, which all affects the bottom line,” she said.

Vince Miyoi, Atlas’ senior vice president of client consulting services, compares starting a health program to implementing a safety and risk-management plan, such as investing in building infrastructure to save on property and casualty insurance. He said he advises clients to analyze accident losses and number of workers’ compensation claims and focus on improving employee behavior and practices.

“Changing behavior is like creating a safety culture for a company,” he said. “Much like how you’re insuring against risk, health and wellness is taking the approach of investing in your most valuable asset, your employees.” Health incentives include free memberships, healthy snacks

PBN asked Hawaii companies what they do to promote health and fitness among their employees. Here’s what three of them said:

Cades Schutte
The law firm offers total body conditioning classes with personal trainer Eric Yamashita at its Bishop Street offices every Tuesday at noon. Five to 10 employees participate in the one-hour session. It offers paid gym memberships to employees who give up parking stalls by choosing not to drive to work. It switched its stock of free beverages from caffeinated drinks to fruit juices and green tea. And, it offers on-site flu shots and frequently has guest speakers on preventive health topics and stress management, according to Kelly LaPorte, a partner with the firm.

Starwood Hotels & Resorts Hawaii
With more than 3,000 employees at its four Waikiki properties, the hotel operator revamped its corporate wellness program about three years ago with the help of HMSA and Kaiser Permanente Hawaii and created a campaign called “Work. Weight. Wellness.”
After learning of several employees’ battles with cancer and heart disease, the company offered $100 incentives to participate in health risk assessments and biometric screenings, said spokeswoman Candice Kraughto. Employees who met certain goals within a year, based on their assessments, such as losing 10 pounds or enrolling in stress-management classes, were rewarded with an additional $100. The cafeterias at all four hotels began serving healthier entrees and expanded fruit and salad bars. In addition to walking groups and routine stretching exercises, the company offers discounted gym memberships.

Hale Makua Health Services
The Maui health-care provider, which operates two long-term-care facilities and offers skilled nursing, home health care and rehabilitation services, launched its corporate wellness program a year-and-a-half ago to help with its recruiting efforts.
Chief human resources officer Ted Tucker told PBN that the biggest challenge at the time was staffing, prompting the company to improve its employee benefits package.
He said the company spends approximately $4 million a year on health care for 515 employees. Hale Makua offers on-site fitness classes including yoga and aerobics. It also covers 100 percent of gym membership and initiation fees for employees who go to the gym at least three times a week, and 50 percent of gym membership and fees for employees who go twice a week.
It also offers on-site flu shots, employee-assistance programs and newsletters with healthy-eating choices.