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Feel better, work better

Published on 21st April 2015

Small businesses strive to improve employee health and well-being
by Devin Blomquist

Working for a small business has its benefits — you can explore your own talents, get to know your colleagues and have opportunities to grow within the company. But there are drawbacks as well. For instance, small businesses may work with less capital than their larger cohorts, making it difficult to provide their employees benefits like workplace wellness programs. 

A recent study by the Colorado School of Public Health and Pinnacol Assurance found that if obstacles like program cost and execution are reduced, small businesses could be equipped to adopt worksite wellness programs for their employees. 

Only one-third of small businesses offer their employees the benefits of a wellness program, according to a press release on the research. For the purposes of this study, a small business was defined as a company with no more than 500 employees for most manufacturing and mining industries, and takes no more than $7 million in average annual receipts for most nonmanufacturing industries.

Where wellness programs are concerned, small businesses cite direct and indirect program costs, lack of employee interest and management support, lack of program expertise and uncertain return on investment as barriers to wellness program adoption in the workplace, according to the study.

“If they [small businesses] look at what large businesses are doing, large businesses can afford to put a whole lot more money into these than small businesses can,” says Lee Newman, lead author of the study and professor of environmental and occupational health at the Colorado School of Public Health at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. 

“So I think small businesses look at that, and they go, ‘Wow, I can’t possibly do that.’ And in fact, one of the things we’re seeing is that it is possible for small businesses to do this if you remove some of those financial barriers,” Newman says.

There are few wellness providers that can provide cost-effective services for small businesses, Newman says. However, if a small business offers employees a health care plan, there are often wellness benefits already in place. For instance, some health care plans offer free health assessments, discounts on weight loss programs, and help with stress-management and mental health issues.

“One of the things that we do is we actually start by helping them see what they’re already paying for in their health care plan. So that’s no additional cost to them,” Newman says. 

Newman says another large barrier preventing implementation of worksite wellness programs is the execution of the program itself. If a straightforward framework on how to build a sustainable program is offered, small businesses are better suited to commit to implementation.

Pinnacol Assurance, a workers’ compensation insurance carrier and partner of the Colorado School of Public Health in this study, has begun to offer their policyholders a worksite wellness program that addresses some of these barriers. 

Karyn Gonzalez, vice president of medical operations and health care strategy at Pinnacol Assurance, says the company provides the resources, tools and support small businesses frequently need in order to engage and roll out these programs. 

One of the local small-businesses that took part in this study was Left Hand Brewing Company of Longmont.
“We were just forming our wellness committee and really needed some help figuring out the direction of where we wanted to steer the company,” says Mark Boelman, accounting manager and chair of the wellness committee at the Left Hand. 

According to Boelman, the study allowed Left Hand to utilize Pinnacol Assurance’s health risk assessment to determine the health and wellness areas in which the staff needed greater assistance.

“The Pinnacol piece is key,” Boelman says, because without the assessment, Left Hand Brewing Company didn’t know where to focus their wellness efforts. 

Another wellness aspect the brewing company pulled from the study and incorporated into their own wellness program was the supplement of a wellness coach, Boelman says. 

Employees of Left Hand Brewing Company are offered a wellness program comprised of benefits found within the existing company health care, the health risk assessment and wellness coaching components from Pinnacol Assurance, as well as various programs, clubs and activities put on and provided by Left Hand itself. 

“The thing that sets us apart from other places,” Boelman says, is that “we have camaraderie built into our program.”“We are not only getting healthy, but we are getting healthy together, and I think that’s really unique.”
According to Boelman, Left Hand Brewery offers employees a ski day—where they close the brewery and go skiing together— tai chi classes every Thursday in the tasting room on site, cooking classes, as well as hiking, running and walking clubs, all in the name of health and wellness.

Boelman says that each of these activities have a point value associated with them, so that for every activity an employee partakes in, that employee will garner so many points. Employees will then report their point status each month, and if they’ve accumulated a certain amount, those points will result in a cash prize that is to be spent on wellness related products like a yoga class or a new bike seat. 

At the moment, Boelman says, Left Hand Brewing has a 70 percent participation in the wellness program, and he has already seen great health improvements in his staff, noting that many employees have gone so far as to quite smoking. 

Gonzalez says the improved health of participants and increased productivity can be seen in as little as one year.
Aside from increased productivity, Newman believes the single biggest reason to implement wellness programs is for corporate responsibility. If businesses are thinking about how to recycle, compost and reduce their carbon footprint, they should also be thinking about how to create a workplace environment that values employees and their families, Newman says.

“A healthy worker is a productive worker,” Newman says. 

Published in the Spring/Summer 2015 Special Edition of Boulderganic at the Boulder Weekly