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Website Helps Small Companies Get Healthy

Online tool answers questions about workplace wellness for employers with 50 or fewer workers.

Overcoming obstacles that prevent small employers from offering workplace wellness programs is the goal of a new online program just launched by John Sarno, president of the Employers Association of New Jersey. Funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the program is free and available to anyone who'd like to give it a try, Sarno said.

"Workforce Wellness and Engagement" is an online tool that addresses questions small employers raise about the practical and legal issues involved in providing programs intended to promote a healthy workplace. These issues include how to protect the privacy of employee health information in a very small workplace where everybody knows everyone else. The site has suggestions of activities to consider adding to a wellness programs, such as providing a secure place for employees to store bicycles, encouraging them to take the stairs, and organizing group exercise sessions before or after work.

"There are a couple of reasons small employers doesn't usually get involved," in workplace wellness programs, Sarno said. "They feel there are too many legal hassles, and that they don't have a critical mass of employees" to make the effort worthwhile. But Sarno said there is a great deal that a small employer can do to promote healthier behavior among workers.

The first phase of the program is the educational materials now posted online; early next year Sarno said he will create an online community, where employers who have adopted the program can share ideas.

The EANJ is an association of about 1,000 New Jersey employers that is focused on addressing human resources issues. Sarno said a survey he conducted before embarking on the project showed that about one in 10 small employers -- with fewer than 50 workers -- were already doing something to encourage employee wellness. That ranged from "everything from offering gym memberships to getting junk food out of the office." One company gave employees pedometers and then rewarded employees who did the most walking; others provided discussion groups on how to quit smoking or cook healthy meals.

In most cases, a small employer isn't going to see a reduction in health insurance premiums as a result of these efforts, Sarno said. But the payoff may come in the form of improved employee morale, less productivity lost to absenteeism, and fewer employees showing up sick at work.

He said small companies avoid wellness programs "until they learn how straightforward and easy this whole thing can be."

Even for large employers, it can be difficult to gauge the impact of workplace wellness programs on employee health and healthcare costs.

Rutgers Professor Jeffrey Keefe is co-chair of the design committee of the State Health Benefits Program, which in November introduced 15 health plans covering more than 700,000 public employees and their families. Created by legislation aimed at lowering the state's health and pension costs, the new plans will be phased in over four years, at which point the highest-paid members in the system will pay 35 percent of their health care premiums. State workers have been paying 1.5 percent of their wages for health care.

Keefe, who teaches a course on health benefits, said early next year the design committee will start looking at ways to improve employee health.

Employee wellness "has been an area of focus and concern for the last 15 years, and the record is mixed," Keefe said. "If we are going to get involved in something, we want to make sure we pick something that's going to work here in New Jersey." He said the committee will "see if we can have any impact on the dramatic rise in healthcare costs. We'd like to have some impact, but every year our healthcare bills go up faster than inflation. We want to do things that work -- but changing adult behavior is not easy."

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