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VOL. 7 | NO. 21 | Saturday, May 17, 2014

Culture of Health

MBGH encouraging local companies to promote wellness in workplace

By Don Wade

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Twenty-five years ago, Carol Harshman was an aerobics instructor working for a Springfield, Mo., health club.

Medtronic employees Jeremy Tincher, left, and Craig Squires jog along a 2-mile path around the perimeter of the company's Memphis campus during their lunch break.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

As someone with a job that allowed her to live out a lifestyle of health and wellness at work, she was in the minority.

One of her duties was soliciting area companies to purchase corporate memberships to the health club for their employees. Then, that was about the only model; a “culture of health” actually at the workplace, says Memphis Business Group on Health (MBGH) CEO Cristie Upshaw Travis, was mostly a foreign concept.

But then a very common thing happened to Harshman. She changed professions and she moved, coming to Memphis and entering the legal field. Today, at age 54, Harshman is a legal assistant at Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC.

And, until recently, she was yet another middle-aged working American who saw another side of life happen to her. The normal – stagnant – rhythms of a desk job had settled onto her shoulders and pushed her deeper into her chair. She led a sedentary lifestyle and her health suffered for it. If she didn’t make changes in her lifestyle, her company would soon suffer for it too.

“I’ve lost 61 pounds in about a year and four months,” Harshman said just days before she was planning to run in her first half-marathon.

How did she recapture her inner aerobics instructor?

If there was just one answer, just an easy answer, no doubt she would be on infomercials and billboards and the face of the latest diet and exercise craze. But there isn’t a single answer.

It’s not a stretch, however, to question if it would have been possible without a corporate climate that wasn’t merely receptive to health and wellness but encouraging of it.

Like almost three dozen other employers in the Memphis area, Baker Donelson has signed on with MBGH’s CEO Culture of Health Initiative. In support of Healthy Shelby, the initiative enlists the backing of corporate CEOs to push company wellness programs to another level. The movement, which began in 2013, is gaining momentum.

“There is a collective impact (on the city),” Travis said. “Let’s get Memphis employers, as many as possible, to do this at the same time.”

First, though, Travis has to get an appointment.

“We have to actually get in the CEO’s office,” she said. “And that can take three or four months. The other thing is, we’re asking employers to focus on this issue when other issues are on their plate.”

The top issue: the Affordable Care Act.

“Their heads have been down on the blocking and tackling that needs to take place,” Travis said. “Health reform requires so much compliance. There’s a lot of detail. And then they come along and change it. In most companies, HR and benefits people are also the ones focused on wellness.”

To date, Travis said 34 area-employers with about 50,000 employees have committed to the program, including Baker Donelson, Baptist Memorial Health Care Corp., FTN Financial, Methodist Le Bonheur Health Care, Medtronic Spine, Shelby County Government, the city of Memphis, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the University of Memphis. Most, if not all, of the participating employers already had some stripe of wellness program in place. They simply wanted to do more.

“Companies are trying to set examples, so it’s a matter of sharing best practices,” said Eric Epperson, senior director of PR and communications at Medtronic, and a former employee at FedEx and AutoZone, which long have had on-site fitness centers.

“An investment in health and wellness really isn’t something you can argue with,” added Liz McKee, who oversees Baker Donelson’s wellness program.

Studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have shown that creating a culture of health can improve productivity while reducing health care costs. A recent meta-analysis of the literature showed the medical costs decline about $3.27 for each dollar invested in wellness. Absenteeism costs fell by about $2.73 for each dollar spent.

Under MBGH’s CEO Culture of Health Initiative, a CEO commits to creating culture of health and wellness within the organization. Next, the CEO identifies people within the organization to champion the cause and the company decides on one of four national programs to use as a road map: the American Heart Association’s Fit-Friendly program, the CEO Cancer Gold Standard, the National Business Group on Health’s Best Employers for Healthy Living program or the Wellness Council of America Well Workplace Awards program.

Lastly, the company then reviews its health benefit offerings and identifies any elements that need to be changed or at least tweaked and how to integrate them into its overall health and benefit strategies.

Nationally, some have questioned the effectiveness of wellness programs, the incentives/penalties tied to employee participation, and even suggested some employees resent the intrusiveness of having to go through a health-risk assessment screening to avoid higher insurance costs.

But Harshman looks at this through the other side of the window. Going through a health assessment, talking to a health coach and signing an affidavit stating you are a non-smoker offer tangible incentives beyond better health.

Medtronic’s Dan Hart spots coworker Eddie Carson's bench press set in the company's employee fitness center.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

“You could get $350 toward your health insurance,” she said. “It’s motivated everyone.”

Baker Donelson went with the American Heart Association program as its national guide. Often, companies combine what they already had in place with one of these national programs that can act as a blueprint and that provides accreditation with the proper tracking. Then a company might add still other components from outside sources, such as Weight Watchers, or make changes inspired by the employees themselves.

Avlem “Reta” Nicholson, 38, started taking boot camp classes a few years ago at FTN to lose her “baby weight” after he daughter was born. Over time, the class has evolved into 30 minutes of boot camp – essentially aerobics with light weights – and 30 minutes of line dancing with Nicholson as the instructor.

“We have two guys that just started and they love it,” she said. “Well, one loves it. The other’s been coming.”

Rick Bowers, 46, an operations manager at FTN, who has been with the company 18 years, admits he is the one that loves it. He also confesses that he had the typical guy attitude before the first class: “I’ll be able to hang. They’re just women.”

Big mistake.

“First day,” he said, “I was falling out.”

But not giving up. Whereas a bunch of other guys may have laughed at him, the women in the class laughed with him. This, too, is a culture of health.

“I’m not a dancer,” Bowers said. “I couldn’t tell you the last time I danced.”

What he could tell you? He bought a treadmill once.

“Well, it’s in my garage,” he said.

So he saw an opportunity for change and literally took a first step.

“I’m not getting any younger,” Bowers said. “I wanted to lose weight. My joints are falling apart on me. So let’s take advantage of the (class at work).

“Over the years, I hadn’t exercised much at all.”

If only it were a matter of just exercising. That, you can make fun – like Rick Bowers loving FTN’s line dancing class or the once-a-month recess days that are a hit at Baker Donelson.

“We kick it old-school,” McKee said. “Field day, tug-of-war.”

But changing eating habits – or the culture of food – within a company is a big part of the CEO initiative too.

“The vendors that support the cafeteria and vending machines are required to offer healthy choices,” Epperson said of Medtronic. “Of course, there are M&M’s.”

It isn’t as if there is such a thing as the doughnut police, but Harshman said of the culture at Baker Donelson, “I don’t think you’d be in trouble, but they wouldn’t be eaten. You’d be hiding it.”

The standard company practice now, for those committed to the CEO Culture of Health, is to ensure healthy choices – fruits, vegetables, bottled water – are always made available at company-sponsored events and meetings where food and drink are served.

Anita Vaughan, CEO at Baptist Memorial Hospital for Women, says pizza is still possible, adding, “We’re all still normal.”

But she also says she’s especially concerned about women’s eating habits because they have a ripple effect through the entire family.

“It sounds corny,” Vaughan said, “but I like to think of the woman as the CEO of health care for her family. For her to be healthy for the whole family, she has to take care of herself … and it’s so easy for moms to just be picking up fast food.”

Travis notes, “We haven’t gone after McDonald’s yet. However, there are healthy options at McDonald’s.”

A change in culture is becoming the norm, Travis says, when the person who once would have carried in a tray of cookies into work now walks in bearing fresh fruit and it’s no big deal: “It’s just who you are.”

Everyone here has seen Memphis land near the top of those Fattest Cities in America lists. McKee, the internal communications manager at Baker Donelson and who oversees the wellness program, says that CEO Ben Adams, a board member of Memphis Tomorrow, supported this initiative because it tied in with the greater vision for the city: Reshaping Memphis’s reputation.

“One of their missions is to attract and retain talent to Memphis,” McKee said.

And companies are changing. Nicholson, recalling the way things were 20 years ago when she started at FTN, said: “In the beginning, there was no fitness. It was all work and no play.”

About 10 years ago, Nicholson said, the company started to promote walking. Pedometers were provided, which only made sense in a numbers-oriented business.

“Those pedometers have motivated people,” she said.

Creating a culture of health sounds good – makes for a nice topic on the company website or in a brochure – but it can have real impact if it’s believable.

“It’s huge,” Medtronic’s Epperson said. “If nothing else, you talk about it from the context of recruiting. When you have a program and you’re genuine about it, it signals we think the employee is more than someone who just comes in and does a job.”

And don’t forget the real rewards for the company: a 25 percent reduction in sick leave, a 25 percent drop in health care costs, and a 32 percent decline in worker’s compensation costs, according to MBGH.

“I work for four attorneys and they’re very busy and it can be stressful,” Harshman said. “Exercise is extremely helpful with that. You have a lot better mindset. You just have more clarity.”

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