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Survivors of 'Wellness Epidemic' : Exercise in the Workplace Bringing Healthy Returns

December 06, 1987|PATRICIA McCORMACK | United Press International Senior Editor

NEW YORK — A "wellness epidemic" that broke in the American workplace a decade or so ago has spread dramatically--and that's good for health, said a report issued last week.

"Work-site wellness activities, once thought of as fads or frivolous employee benefits, are now found in almost two-thirds of the nation's work sites with 50 or more employees," the report, "Worksite Wellness Research Update 1987," said.

"In addition, several major companies report that those who participate in these activities are more likely to be healthy and have lower health-care costs.

"At Johnson & Johnson, a five-year study of the company's pilot health promotion program found that, if offered to all J & J employees, it could save at least $1 million annually through health improvements, reduced absenteeism and a projected annual reduction in health-care costs," the report said.

Unlike an epidemic that scatters sickness, this one spreads chances of wellness, according to Ruth Behrens, director of the Prevention Leadership Forum that issued the report.

The Forum Behrens heads has been tracking the work site wellness trend since the late 1970s. It is a cooperative effort of the Washington Business Group on Health and the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

She said work-site health projects include such things as drug, alcohol and smoking control; exercise and physical fitness activities; back care and other treatment; off-the-job accident prevention instruction; weight control; screening for high blood pressure and other health problems; health risk appraisal.

"Some companies, mainly small ones, have only one activity," she said, "but among the big firms there is a wide range."

Pioneering "wellness" projects first were launched by multibillion-dollar corporations with thousands of workers. They included gyms at corporate headquarters to spark physical fitness and executive dining rooms that never served high fat, highly salted or junk foods.

Early programs included stress reduction rooms where harried executives could practice the trance-like relaxation response pioneered by Harvard's Dr. Herbert Benson.

The report on work-site wellness contains evaluations of model long-running programs at Control Data Corp., AT & T Communications, Johnson & Johnson, and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Indiana.

The CDC study has shown that persons with unhealthy life styles use more medical care and generate higher health claim costs than those with healthier life styles.

"Results showed that employees with poor health habits cost employers more money than those with positive habits (not smoking, exercising, using safety belts and so forth)," the report said.

The data base for the study was set up from 1981 to 1984 and includes about 40,000 life years for workers at 27 company locations across the country.

At AT & T Communications, a pilot employee health promotion program, "Total Life Concept," helped workers change unhealthy life-style behaviors. This lowered their health risks and improved health-related and job-related attitudes, the report said.

"The financial benefits from the program could be equally dramatic. If the trends seen in the pilot were to continue over the next 10 years, AT & T Communications projects savings of $72 million from reduced heart attacks and an additional $15 million from reduced cancer," the report said.

The Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Indiana "Stay Alive & Well" program saved $1.45 in health-care costs for every $1 it invested in health promotion.

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