More building service contractors are encouraging healthy lifestyles for their employees. They are following many other employers, who are feeling the stress of escalating insurance premiums.

Employer efforts primarily take the form of wellness and prevention programs, industry consultants say. These range from smoking-cessation programs to screenings for such health risks as high cholesterol and blood pressure.

These wellness and prevention programs not only result in reduced health costs, but increased employee morale and productivity.

“An investment in preventive health care has been shown to reduce long-term health-care costs and improve the health and productivity of employees,” says Christopher Mathews, senior health consultant and vice president of the Segal Co., Washington, D.C. “When workers are healthy, they are usually more productive and happier at work.”

“If employers do nothing to encourage employees to adopt a healthier lifestyle, the end result will be a reversion to higher health-care costs shared between employers and employees,” adds Cheryl A. Ray, senior vice president at USI Consulting Group, Woburn, Mass.


The programs available to BSCs are as diverse as their workforces, consultants say. Most common are wellness programs that emphasize nutrition and weight management and those that help workers stop smoking. Other efforts seek to reduce stress or encourage physical fitness.

What are becoming more common, however, are preventative programs that target cancer, diabetes, heart disease and other chronic illnesses. These efforts most often are tailored to general guidelines for medical treatment and include examinations that center around age- and gender-based health issues.

For instance, such programs may encourage women to have a baseline mammogram to detect breast cancer between the ages of 35 and 40, and then every year thereafter; men may be urged to get screened for prostate cancer when they turn 50, and then every five years.

“Employers are trying to keep their people healthy and one way to do that is to make sure there is an early diagnosis in order to prevent major problems,” Mathews says.

Smaller BSCs are better off contracting out such programs, Ray and Mathews say. Larger companies most likely have internal resources or insurers that provide programs for free. BSCs should examine the costs and benefits of the programs before proceeding.

Overcoming roadblocks

BSCs face a number of challenges in implementing wellness programs, especially when employees are spread across multiple locations and are of a diverse background, says Ray.

“It is difficult to bring employees together to present a coordinated and cohesive program,” she adds.

Changing attitudes may also prove difficult.

“The lower-income or less-educated employees may be more resistant to behavior change,” says Ray.

Without employee participation and involvement, the program will fail, says Mathews.

However, many employees will most likely welcome the encouragement to live a healthier lifestyle.

“Based on the media attention given to health and wellness over the past several years, most people are more accepting of wellness programs,” Ray says. “That is not to say wellness programs will not be met with some resistance.”

She notes the growing presence of advertisements for weight-loss programs on television along with books on healthy lifestyles, as well as nutrition bars, energy drinks and other products.

“Even vending machines in office buildings and some schools are being replaced with healthy alternatives,” Ray says.

Incentives help, too. Money, time off, even payments toward health coaches or personal trainers are ways to get employees interested in wellness programs. They also can be rolled out through company newsletters or by mail or over the Internet.

Still, lifestyle programs only will work if BSCs know their employees and what companies themselves want to achieve through them.

“If you’ve got a company with a lot of young people, you’re not going to find a lot of chronic disease,” Mathews says. “But if you find that the issue may be weight control, then focus on it and go after it.”

Employers wanting to implement a wellness program must be serious about it. It takes time and effort to be successful, and few companies realize that.

“Most employers only commit to buying an off-the-shelf program and then hoping that it will be successful,” says Mathews. “These programs should only be implemented when the employer understands how to define clear objectives and then create a line of sight for employees to understand how they benefit from improved health.”

Why do it?

The greatest benefit for BSCs with wellness programs is lower health-care costs. Employers spend $537 billion every year on group health insurance policies, according to a study released last year by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, Menlo Park, Calif.

Premiums rose an average of 6.1 percent last year, the study said, with the average cost of family coverage totaling $12,106. Workers, on average, now pay $3,281 out of their paychecks to cover their share of the cost of a family policy, the study said.

By contrast, wages among the companies surveyed rose only 3.7 percent last year. Many employers also indicated in the Kaiser study that they planned to raise health costs this year, either through higher deductibles or co-pays for office visits or prescription drugs.

Nationwide, more than 158 million people rely on employer-sponsored health insurance, the report said.

“The number of options for low-wage earners is limited, and the greatest burden of all health-care costs falls to this segment of the population,” Dr. Mary A. Pittman, president of Health Research and Educational Trust (HRET), said at the study’s release. The trust, based in Princeton, N.J., co-authored the study.

Much of the money spent for health coverage is “expensive waste,” reflecting the difficulty both workers and employers face in maneuvering the nation’s health-care system, which is valued at $2.1 trillion, or slightly more than $7,000 per person, says Mathews.

“Many people have things that don’t need to be done: unnecessary tests, unnecessary surgery, trying to figure out what their diagnosis should be,” he adds. “It’s a very fragmented system.”

Beyond lower insurance costs, BSCs will see other results from their prevention programs, including less absenteeism and fewer job-related injuries. Workers also become more motivated and are more interested in their work.

Perhaps the best incentive for having a wellness program at work, consultants say: higher wages.

“Lowering medical-plan costs result in more money available for wages,” Mathews says. “Employees are less prone to illness, their productivity is improved and there is less time off due to illness, resulting in higher wages.”

Todd Beamon is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee.