Companies save with wellness spending


Jerry Benish wasn’t looking for a medal when he finished Camcraft Inc.’s fun run and lost 10 pounds in the company’s “Biggest Loser” contest.

He knew the biggest winner could be Camcraft itself. As director of human resources at the Hanover Park-based components manufacturer, Benish closely tracks health care expenses.

Along with moving to self-funded insurance to save costs, Camcraft has found that wellness  programs can help control rising premiums by reducing claims among its work force. Last quarter, 150 of 187 employees didn’t miss a day of work.

“If people are healthy, they’re not incurring claims,” said Jim O’Donnell, a Camcraft vice president. “That’s where wellness  comes in. We want to try to prevent catastrophic claims.”

Like a growing number of companies aiming to keep workers fit, Camcraft offers health screenings for high blood pressure and cholesterol, and provides a fitness room, monthly nutrition newsletters and healthful choices in its vending machines. It also offers on-premise physicals and pays program fees for Weight Watchers if employees attend all meetings. It covers 75 percent of membership costs at a local health club, Benish said.

The result is an increase in productivity.

Boosting productivity

“If there are fun things you can do, it engages people, and enthusiasm spreads,” O’Donnell said. “It’s a good thing.”

As companies increasingly get creative about holding the line on health care costs, more are turning to inexpensive wellness programs. Events that promise to get workers moving and thinking about preventive health care are paying off in increased job attendance and smaller annual health care cost increases.

“We learned very quickly that some of the best ways to manage health care costs are through promoting a healthy work force,” said Lisa Pinion, vice president of human resources at Assurance Agency in Schaumburg. “We’ve been able to show, by taking a proactive role, you not only can help manage your health care costs but you can improve your productivity.”

Using its 210-employee company as a case study of wellness programs, Assurance has found a substantial drop in sick-time usage. On average, the number of sick days used per employee dropped to one day per 12 months as of the end of July, down from about five days per employee in 2005, Pinion said.

“We give our employees eight paid illness days, and almost no one is using them,” she said.

Assurance also has held the line on insurance costs to single- and low-single-digit annual increases, Pinion said. Three out of four employees participated in at least one wellness event last year, and the company’s current goal is to have 85 percent of workers try at least three events this year.

Short-term activities often work best, Pinion said. “If you’re doing a walking challenge, make it a four-week program, not a six-month program, because it will lose steam,” she said.

Wellness events don’t have to be extravagant, Pinion said. “Small things make a difference over time.”

Alper Services, a Chicago insurance broker, offers its 50 employees free flu shots, CPR training, walking and weight-loss contests, and lunchtime lessons in karate, yoga and nutrition. Its Walk the Talk challenge in April encouraged employees to take 150,000 steps, or about 5,000 a day.

In August, it hosted a weekday summer outing to Lincoln Park Zoo, where employees competed in a race to take the most steps during a three-hour period. The winner was crowned the Alper Zookeeper, and won a half-day off.

Making activities into group events can build camaraderie, said Yvette Bickcom, who works in the employee benefits department at Alper Services. “Certain things, I wouldn’t do on my own,” she said.