Wellness 101

Health care costs continue to rise, and the costs of the insurance benefits that your company provides to its employees are eating away at your bottom line.

To address the problem, many firms have created wellness programs to improve the health of their employees. If successful, a wellness program helps reduce the employees’ utilization of the health care system, therefore reducing health insurance claims, which helps the company hold down its health insurance costs.

Growing numbers of southeastern Wisconsin companies are finding that properly administered wellness programs are generating returns on their investments.

Chronic diseases account for more than 50 percent of health care costs. Wellness programs can work because those chronic diseases are often related to poor lifestyle choices and are therefore preventable, at least to some degree. Wellness programs can improve those lifestyle choices.

An additional benefit of wellness programs, experts say, is that healthier employees are more productive and create a higher quality work environment. Investing in a workplace wellness program can benefit large and small businesses, wellness experts say.

“I think when the focus on work site wellness came about, there was a huge focus on the return on investment, as a cost savings for investors, but since then employers are starting to see the benefits of wellness in terms of increased productivity, decreased absenteeism, happier employees and just healthier employees as well,” said Connie Roethel, wellness expert and president of Core Health Group, a corporate wellness consulting firm in Mequon. “If people are feeling better, if they are eating well, getting sleep and exercise, they’re feeling better and they are more productive. There are so many benefits to doing workplace wellness.”

Milwaukee-based Wisconsin Energy Corp. began implementing its employee wellness program in 1997.

“It is certainly well worth it. We have seen a return that exceeds a one-to-one on a cumulative basis since the start of the program,” said Cindy Schaefer, manager of health promotions for the company.

Greenfield-based Pyramax Bank’s wellness programs have helped it contain its health insurance costs.

“We are in our fourth year of the program, but this is the third year in a row that our employees haven’t seen an increase in their health care premiums,” said Monica Baker, senior vice president of human resources at Pyramax Bank. “We believe that is a direct correlation to our wellness initiatives.”

So, if you are convinced that a wellness program would be a good idea for your company, how do you get one started?

Well City Milwaukee executive director Janet McMahon said many companies make the mistake of jumping into a wellness program without a plan. Well City Milwaukee is an initiative focused on getting a critical mass of employers in the city on board with wellness programs to earn a Well City accreditation from the Wellness Council of America.

“A business really needs to evaluate the culture of its workplace and find out what is going to work within all the sociological nuances of the company,” McMahon said.

Shelley Anderson, human resource generalist for Milwaukee-based general contractor C.G. Schmidt Inc., said the planning for the company’s wellness program included discussions with other companies that had already established wellness programs.

“We started off fairly small, and at first used resources of our own to get started,” Anderson said, “We spoke with other companies whose programs were already advanced, so they had a lot of ideas on what worked and what didn’t. After that, it was just trial and error for us.”

C.G. Schmidt eventually became a member of the Wellness Council of Wisconsin and began utilizing its resources. The Wellness Council has two types of memberships, a corporate membership for $495 per year or an associate membership for $365 per year.

“The major difference is that for your workplace to qualify for the wellness awards, you must be a corporate member,” said Jessica Raddemann, Wellness Council executive director.

Other companies, such as Waukesha-based Steinhafel’s, work with insurance carriers to create a wellness program directly related to their health benefits package.

“Our wellness plan came as a direct result of us working with our insurance company to figure out ways to reduce health care costs for our employees,” said Andrea Kokott, human resources recruiting manager at Steinhafels. “We have a premium insurance plan and then a standard insurance plan. It isn’t based on health. If you are participating in the wellness plan, you get the preferred rate.”

The Wellness Council of America (WELCOA), the Wellness Council of Wisconsin and the Well City program are documenting their seven benchmarks to success. The agencies say the benchmarks offer an easy way for any company to see its wellness status and outline the wellness process.

“It’s really the best proces, WELCOA has looked at all of the research in workplace wellness and looked at all of the key things that have led to successful programs that are outcome-focused,” McMahon said.

The seven benchmarks include: CEO support; create wellness teams; collect data; design a plan; choose interventions and activities; create a supportive environment; and evaluate the model.

The first step is getting executive support for the wellness program.

“It’s great to have champions at all levels in the company, but you have to have top-level management support,” McMahon said. “They are the ones that are going to be endorsing the activities and providing the financial and human resources to do it, so they have to be on board.”

“Our wellness program really came from the top down,” said Kokott of Steinhafels. “Our leaders saw a new trend, and after looking at the cost of health care, decided that we needed to make sure we were protecting our company and our employees.”

Steinhafels currently offers education classes, Weight Watchers programs, wellness contests, an onsite exercise facility, a walking path, basketball courts and a certified nurse who rotates throughout its locations. 

“Our owner is incredibly involved in our program and really promotes wellness,” said Patty Frett of Frett/Barrington Ltd., an independent insurance brokerage in Waukesha. “They were able to say, ‘We think this is important. Let’s make this investment.'”

Frett/Barrington initiated company policies as part of its wellness plan.

“We actually have a policy that every meeting has to start with some sort of physical activity, it just reminds us that we need to be eating better and staying active,” Frett said.

According to McMahon, creating wellness teams is also an important part of the wellness process. The employees who lead can be voluntary or appointed, but need to be passionate about the cause and must be able to drive other employees to make lifestyle changes, McMahon said.

Frett/Barrington, which has 10 employees, has three people in charge of its wellness program. C.G. Schmidt, which has 360 employees, has a team of 14 volunteers organizing the company’s wellness program.

“We started off small with a team of four, but it has grown to 14 individuals from all levels volunteering to help out,” said Stefanie Meyers, director of human resources for C.G. Schmidt.

On any given day at a construction site, C.G. Schmidt’s workers can be found stretching and exercising during their lunch breaks, replete with their hard hats.

The third benchmark and probably the most critical, according to Roethel, is data collection, including biometric testing.

“Biometric testing is most effective when paired with a health risk assessment,” Roethel said. “Anyone looking to do anything for workplace wellness should invest in a health risk assessment and have someone explain the results. Not only will it help create awareness, it tells the company where to focus its efforts.”

A health risk assessment is a survey taken by employees that reviews their health habits and measures their cholesterol, blood pressure and other important health data. The biometric screening gives each employee an accurate measure of total cholesterol, blood sugar, body mass index and blood pressure, Theresa Islo, director of operations at the Wellness Council of Wisconsin said.

The costs of biometric screenings range from $25 to $70 per employee and are administered by a third-party company to ensure everything is kept private.

“One of our biggest challenges in administering the biometrics was making sure our employees knew that this information was strictly for them,” Kokott said. “We really needed to communicate that as employers we didn’t even get to see their numbers. It was completely private just to make them aware.”

The other portion of data collection is conducting an interest survey to find out what wellness initiatives your employees would most be interested in.

“We only have 10 employees, but we still conducted a survey to find out what they wanted because you always think you know but you might not,” said Frett.

Creating a customized plan is important, McMahon said.

“You do have to have some sort of budget,” Roethel said. “The management has to be behind it and they have to put money into it. It’s an investment. Small companies can do wellness too, my suggestion is you look at the resources you’ve got and use that.”

Wellness program budgets can vary, depending on the size of the company and the elements in the program.

“We have a budget of $2,500 dollars for the administration fees and activities we plan,” said Baker of Pyramax Bank. Pyramax has about 125 employees, and its program covers their spouses, as well.

The activities and interventions in a customized plan should coincide with the aggregate data collected in the interest survey, as well as the needs assessment, Raddemann said.

“For most, the needs assessment will reveal they need to focus on weight, nutrition and exercise. Those are contributors to most risk factors,” Roethel said.

The interest surveys can help reveal the topics of interest and activities that employees are willing to get involved in, such as stress management, healthy eating or yoga and jazzercise classes.

Companies can host meetings, such as “lunch and learns,” that give employees the opportunity to participate in a learning session on topics of interest.

C.G. Schmidt offers yoga classes and strength training in an open room at the company’s headquarters.

Other companies, such as Frett/Barrett, encourage employees to participate in community events, run/walks or wellness sessions.

The Well City Milwaukee website features a community calendar of wellness events open to the public.

“Wellness initiatives don’t have to be expensive or complicated,” Raddemann said. “They can be as simple as encouraging employees to use the stairs instead of the elevator, or bringing in fruit to encourage healthy eating habits … Even just providing a research library of information on wellness topics.”

When starting out, most experts recommend going with a reward or “carrot” approach to wellness, rather then punishing employees with “sticks” such as fees or higher premiums for not participating, McMahon said.

“I think it’s always better to start with the ‘carrot’ approach, especially when it’s a new concept to a company,” Roethel said. “There is already a lot of anxiety about the employer getting involved in employees’ health. So, I think starting with incentives that are rewarding rather then punitive is a better place to start in order to get people on board and get them to want to participate in creating their own healthy lifestyle.”The process

Essential steps for creating a wellness program:

  • CEO support
  • Create wellness teams
  • Collect data
  • Design the plan
  • Choose interventions and activities
  • Create a supportive environment
  • Evaluate the model

Wellness resources for employers

Wellness Council of America


The Wellness Council of America offers information on the seven benchmarks of success involving a wellness program, but also offers a free resources index that includes studies about what works and what doesn’t. The agency has sample surveys and questionnaires a company can distribute to its employees. In addition, the agency has information related to fitness and nutrition.

Wellness Council-Wisconsin


The Wellness Council of Wisconsin offers information about membership and workplace award winners, programs and events. The agency hosts a series of workshops that help businesses become a Well Workplace.

Well City Milwaukee


The web site for the initiative offers details on how to become involved in the Well City Milwaukee campaign and also provides several employer resources for starting a wellness program. The resources include links to the Department of Health Administration’s Worksite Wellness Resource Kit, a tobacco-free workplace kit and a calendar of local wellness events.

Wellness Incentives Guide 2008


This resource is available to anyone and provides a directory of wellness professionals in southeastern Wisconsin. Wellness Incentives’ online directory includes a growing list of providers and businesses that are part of the wellness support network in southeastern Wisconsin. The printed guide, available for free, also includes a full directory, and a wide range of offers and incentive discounts that people can use to take a proactive approach to their own health care and wellness.