Published on July 11, 2019

Wellness companies are an $8 billion industry, and several local businesses work with them.

On the 16th floor of the Berks County Services Center, they are bending over backward, and sometimes forward, to keep health costs down.

The 16th floor is ground zero in the county's wellness program, and home to its gym where daily exercise classes, including yoga, are held.

Nine county employees, including Tammy Funk and Bettina Renninger, showed up to the yoga session in the large workout room on July 2, a lighter-than-normal turnout due to the impending holiday.

They calmly contorted themselves into various positions that require strength, balance, controlled breathing and concentration, all under the watchful eye of yoga instructor Elaine Forry from Colonial Fitness in Sinking Spring.

Several feet away, Bob Jakubec, another county employee, jogged on a treadmill while peering out through a window with a panoramic view of Reading.

Jessica Weaknecht, the director of human resources for the county, said the county has had some form of a wellness program in place for at least all of her 13 years as an employee.

It's all about being healthy, happy and productive.

Not all of the county's roughly 2,300 employees have time to run on a treadmill or assume the happy baby pose in yoga class, but they can participate in health-promoting activities such as walking, attending lunch-and-learns with health experts, accessing blood and other health screenings, doing online health assessments, or attending smoking cessation programs when they are offered.

There's even a "biggest loser" competition for employees that measures body mass index rather than just weight loss, Weaknecht said.

"We try to be as creative as we can be."

The Affordable Care Act passed in 2010 offered incentives for companies to operate wellness programs. By 2018, workplace wellness industry revenue tripled to $8 billion, and programs reached some 50 million U.S. workers according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

About 152 million Americans are covered by employee-sponsored health plans, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, all of whom are interested in reducing health care costs.

In one study, Harvard researchers found that medical costs dropped $3.27 for every dollar spent on wellness programs, and that absenteeism costs fell $2.73 for every dollar spent.

Wellness programs are in full bloom among some of Berks County's biggest employers like Tower Health which employs about 12,000 people system-wide, and Green Hills-based Penske which employs about 2,000 people.

“Penske offers its employees in Green Hills a wide array of wellness options from an on-site nurse and health coaching options to weight loss and therapeutic massages and smoking cessation programs," according to Penske's Director of Communications Randolph P. Ryerson.

"We also offer employees fresh, healthy food choices in our cafeterias and health-related activities such as our fall fitness walk on campus to promote healthier lifestyles," Ryerson said.

Good Life Companies, based in Cumru Township, is among the most aggressive promoters of wellness at the office and beyond.

"Like anything else, we feel like your life is a result of the habits that you form, good or bad" said Conor Delaney, CEO and co-founder.

"We do not force wellness on our employees, but we definitely encourage it," he said.

Delaney and co-founder Courtnie Nein spent $3 million renovating the 28,000-square-foot, former La-Z-Boy furniture store along Lancaster Pike into its new headquarters.

That space now includes an organic cafe and a gym, and it provides reward programs and monthly credits to eat well and be well.

"This is incredibly important," said Delaney, a marathon runner. "The healthier people are, the happier they often are as well. Also, the healthier they are, the more productive they tend to be. "

Value questioned

It all sounds good, but a study by researchers from Harvard Medical School, the University of Chicago and the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that wellness programs may not produce the return on investment that many imagine.

Researchers compared thousands of workers at 20 locations of a large, retail warehouse company with thousands of that of about 29,000 other employees at 140 locations without wellness programs.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in April showed that wellness program participants are more likely to exercise more and manage their weight.

But the wellness programs involved in the study had little effect on things like sleep quality, cholesterol, blood pressure and body mass index, pharmaceutical spending, absenteeism, job tenure or job performance.

"These findings may temper expectations about the financial return on investment that wellness programs can deliver in the short term," the researchers concluded.

Changing behavior

"This ties right into our model quite honestly," said Gene McGuire, a managing partner of Blue Bell, Montgomery County-based Wellness Coaches USA.

That company, founded in 2002, has trained wellness coaches at the locations of about 1,000 employers companies, covering 400,000 employees, in 35 states including Pennsylvania.

"One of the hardest things in the world to do is to change behavior," McGuire said.

"Wellness does work," McGuire said. "No doubt. If you can help people to change their lives for the better, to be healthier and safer, you will not get sick as much, they will not use the system as much."

The difference between wellness programs that work, and ones that don't work, is engagement according to McGuire.

"We just took the best known behavior change methodology (coaching) and operationalized it so that we made it easy for a lot of people to use it, and the only place you can do that is where they work," McGuire said.

Wellness Coaches claims an 86% participation rate, or about 344,000 of the employees covered at its sites nationally, McGuire said.

It also claims dramatically decreased levels of stress, obesity and high blood pressure, and an increase in exercise, in the populations its serves.

Using data from its clients, Wellness Coaches reported that medical and drug claims per employee per month are average $782 at companies with health coaches versus $1,148 at companies without.

Culture of wellness

The key to a successful workplace wellness program is engagement and creating a culture of wellness, according to Tower Health Wellness Medical Director Dr. Sarah Luber.

Online programs simply don't work as well, she said.

Tower Health has a robust wellness program that includes a disease management component, but that focuses most of its energy on lifestyle management and four pillars of health: mind, body, nutrition and spirit.

Employees at Tower Health can access about 35 on-site activities. More than half of its employees participated in a walking challenge that resulted in 4,200 pounds lost, Luber said.

A weight loss challenge at Tower drew 863 participants who lost 8,648 pounds in three months, or about 10.1 pounds per person.

There is value, Luber said, "when you're on a team, when you get encouragement and remind each other to walk together or to say 'let's take a break so we can get our steps in,'" she said.

"Health is a very social entity, and we often overlook how much we rely on our social system, our colleagues, the people you take your breaks with," Luber said.

"It's more impactful than what your physicians tell you sometimes."