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Workplace keeping its employees well

Yoga students pose in class

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Kai Ryssdal: The high profile health-care debate probably has a lot of people thinking about the insurance benefits they get at work. But copays and deductibles are only part of the package. Cholesterol screenings, support groups to get people to stop smoking, and yoga are in the mix at some companies as well. They're generally grouped under something called wellness programs. And even though a lot of places have been cutting their budgets, those wellness programs are thriving. From KPCC, Alex Cohen has more.


ALEX COHEN: At L.L. Bean's headquarters in Freeport, Maine, there are mandatory stretch breaks for employees several times a day. The outdoor outfitter also offers its workers pilates classes, circuit training, kayaking and tai chi.

Susan Tufts is the company's wellness manager.

SUSAN TUFTS: We subsidize healthy foods in our cafeterias and our vending machines. We've done a lot of smoking cessation, nutrition education, weight management, stress management.

This fiscal year, revenue at L.L. Bean is down nearly 8 percent. The company recently cut part of its travel budget and eliminated about 150 jobs.

Susan Tufts says they won't be slashing their wellness program, even though it costs more than a million dollars a year.

TUFTS: One of the things that's made our program so successful is the long-term commitment. And I think when times are the hardest that's when we see people stand up to the plate and say, 'This is the right thing to do. It's important for the company, it's important for our people.'

According to a Met Life survey done last year, 57 percent of companies with 500 employees or more offer wellness programs.

Ron Geraty is chief executive officer of Alere, a wellness management company. He says many employers are currently starting new wellness programs or beefing up existing ones.

RON GERATY: Most employers, especially the larger employers, have found that good health is good business.

Geraty says fewer than 5 percent of the employers he works with have cut back on wellness programs. Reason number one: on average, wellness programs are pretty cheap.

GERATY: Roughly we're talking about a dollar per month per employee.

For that amount, Geraty adds, employers receive a strong return on their investment. He cites recent findings from the National Business Group on Health.

GERATY: Companies that provide integrated health and wellness program had 20 percent higher revenue per employee, five times fewer sick days, improved productivity across the board.

Wellness programs do require patience. It usually takes several years after beginning one to see positive financial results. And measuring those results can prove a bit of a challenge.

Ron Goetzel is director of Emory University's Institute for health and productivity studies. He says you can measure a program's impact by comparing participating employees with non-participating ones. But they have to be close matches.

RON GOETZEL: People who are very, very similar in terms of their demographic, their health care utilization patterns, their disease severity.

Of course, such comparisons don't account for the hereditary effects on health, or for what employees might be doing to take care of themselves off the clock.

That said, Goetzel still views wellness programs as a smart investment. One he believes can save companies $2 to $3 for each $1 spent. And he says, it's not just about the bottom line.

GERATY: With layoffs, reductions in force and so forth, they need to keep their employees healthy, motivated, focused and productive.

Especially when employers have to cut jobs, he says, best to make sure the employees you keep on are both physically and mentally healthy.

I'm Alex Cohen for Marketplace.

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