Michael Tribbett’s blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol level were soaring when he signed up for free wellness classes offered at work.
But Tribbett, a maintenance worker at a poultry processing facility, came away from the classes filled with energy and new resolve. “I’m not ready to die yet, I’m ready to live,” said Tribbett, 60, who works for Fieldale Farms Corp. in Cornelia.
Fieldale Farms, which also has operations in Gainesville, is one of the largest independent poultry producers in the world. The company has nearly 5,000 employees.
In 1992, company executives realized they needed to cut medical costs and help employees stay healthier.
At the time, few companies had workplace programs promoting healthier behavior among their employees. But there were already signs that they might reduce health care costs, absenteeism, workers’ compensation and injuries. There were also indications that wellness programs increased employee productivity, morale and loyalty.
Denise Ivester, who is now Fieldale’s group health and wellness manager, was charged with implementing a program to improve worker health and cut costs. In Georgia, “we were pioneers in putting out a wellness program,” she says.
“Cardiovascular disease is the highest health cost for Fieldale,” Ivester says. Many heart attacks, strokes and cases of congestive heart failure are linked to diabetes. When he signed up for the worksite health program, Tribbett was among the 9.3 percent of Americans with diabetes.
A destructive disease
Diabetes is a $245 billion burden on the nation’s health. In 2012, it accounted for $176 billion in direct medical costs and $69 billion in reduced productivity.
“Well-designed workplace health and wellness programs can help cut the costs of diabetes and other chronic diseases,” said Deborah Diamond, director of public relations with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia.
She pointed to a study of more than 50 corporate health and wellness programs, affecting 370,000 employees, as evidence. Researchers found that companies had a substantial drop in sick leave, workers compensation costs and overall health costs.
Well-designed wellness programs like Fieldale’s are one way of containing high health care costs. “We have basically been half the cost of the national average for 20 years,” said Ivester. On average, employer-provided health coverage costs about $11,000 per employee per year, she said, while Fieldale’s annual spending per employee is about $5,200.
Researchers find that on-site, face-to-face interventions with reinforcement work better than off-site approaches with little or no “face time.” For example, a study comparing two types of online weight-loss programs – one with individual action plans and peer support and the other without – showed that people in high-contact programs lost more weight over six months.
A national survey recently found that employers have increased the financial incentives they offer workers to participate in wellness programs to a record $693 per employee, on average, this year from $594 in 2014 and $430 five years ago, Reuters reported.
The incentives take the form of cash, reduced insurance premiums or contributions to a health care account.
About half of all employers with at least 50 employees offered wellness programs in 2012.
Despite some beneficial results of these programs, a Rand Corp. study of some large employers found that their wellness programs had few if any immediate effects on how much the companies spent on health care.
Not an impersonal group
At Fieldale, people who sign up for weight loss, smoking cessation and similar programs can earn incentives, including $50 Wal-Mart gift cards. Those who work out six or more times in a month can get free gym memberships.
Ivester suggested that human interaction when an employee gets to the results stage of the screenings is what makes Fieldale’s program different from others. “They [counselors and nutritionists] make sure that people understand their health issue and how they can take care of themselves,” she said. These counseling sessions are offered year round and free of charge.
Crystal Farms, one of Hall County’s chicken feed mills, is a much smaller company than Fieldale. Its 36 employees have access to wellness programs as part of their Coventry health insurance package. “Everything is done online through the insurance company’s website,” said Jan Pool, the benefits administrator for Crystal Farms.
Employees at Crystal Farms see their personal doctor, then use findings such as blood pressure, weight, height, and other indicators to create a profile on a Coventry website. The insurance company reaches out to people at high risk for conditions such as diabetes and steers them to online counseling programs.
“I have only seen a few people that have actually followed through with it,” Pool said of the program, “but it worked for them.” Pool said there had not been much noticeable difference in the overall health of workers at Crystal Farms.
Hands on, face-to-face health promotion is apparently more of a magnet at Fieldale. “About 98 percent of those we offer the program to will participate,” Ivester said.
Grief was a hard lesson
The turning point for Tribbett was when his mother died from complications of diabetes. He made positive changes in his life and now relies on the program to keep him on track.
At one point, his blood pressure rose after being normal for quite a while. Nurses quizzed him about dietary changes and it turned out that a new “hard meat skin” snack that Tribbett was eating was extremely high in sodium.
The nutritionist suggested almonds or peanuts as healthy alternatives, and Tribbett brought his sodium intake and his blood pressure down again.
Tribbett is a fan of the company’s wellness classes. “My body is intact now at 60 years old. All the things that I suffer with, we’ve got it under control now.”
Rebekah Ryan, born and raised in Hall County, is currently seeking a master’s degree in public relations from the University of Georgia.