corporate wellness programs improve employee health while bolstering co.'s bottom line

Scott Mishler is the first to admit that he used to be a couch potato.

"I'm the kind of guy who likes to sit in a recliner with a bag of chips and the remote control in my lap," he says.

One year ago he was overweight, on three different blood pressure medications, suffering from headaches and unable to lift his arm over his head. He had tried the usual diets, but nothing worked for him.

Surprisingly, Mishler found the solution through his employer, Eaton Corp. As part of his company's corporate wellness plan, the 53-year-old extruder operator enrolled in the Cleveland Clinic Lifestyle 180 program. Now, Mishler works out regularly at the Clinic's Wellness Institute in Lyndhurst, is learning good eating habits, and has the support of a team of coaches.

Within six weeks of starting the program, Mishler was completely off his medications. Today he weighs 168 pounds – 84 pounds shy of his peak weight – and he's not done shrinking. "Eaton's celebrating 100 years this year and I want to lose my 100th pound in their 100th year," he says.

Companies spend millions of dollars annually on healthcare. Much of that budget goes to treating chronic diseases. By enrolling their employees in corporate wellness programs, companies are finding they can keep healthcare costs down, increase employee productivity, and reduce absenteeism, all by managing -- and in some cases reversing -- chronic illnesses.

Wellness programs can include healthy food in cafeterias, nutrition and weight-loss classes, smoking-cessation support, and access to fitness centers. To be eligible for programs like the Clinic's Lifestyle 180 program, employees often must suffer from prostate cancer, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity or fatty liver disease. Costs are often split between employee and employer.

These wellness programs tackle the "big four" causes of chronic illness: tobacco use, nutrition, physical activity and stress management. "Seventy-five percent of all chronic diseases are caused by those four," says Tom Gubanc, senior director of wellness at the Clinic. "A lot of what we do is lifestyle change."

Chad Hanzlicek, an account executive with the Clinic's Wellness Enterprise, says that lifestyle change is the key to treating, and even reversing, chronic disease. "The great news is you can turn on and off those genes," Hanzlicek says. "It's all determined by what you do, what you eat, and how you treat your body."

And the key to altering somebody's lifestyle, he adds, is simple motivation. "Our philosophy is to make it as easy as possible, from what they eat to exercise," he says. "It's about incentivizing people to make the right choices."

As an IT program manager for Eaton, Tom Jarc has access to healthy living classes, wholesome food choices in the cafeterias, and enrollment in the Clinic's Lifestyle 180 program, which he joined to lower his triglycerides and lose weight. That program involves home and gym exercise programs, cooking and nutrition instruction, yoga, and behavior modification. Since beginning, Jarc has lost 40 pounds, lowered his triglycerides, and even stopped snoring as much.

Cliffs Natural Resources, with headquarters in Cleveland and remote locations around the world, also offers a wellness program to employees. As a leader in the mining industry, employee health is vital. The company recently launched a global initiative that designs wellness programs specifically for the countries in which it has a presence. The Cleveland office holds an annual wellness fair, weekly Weight Watchers meetings, and provides fresh fruit for employees to graze on.

These wellness programs are about saving money and increasing productivity, says Christina Gordon, a Cliffs corporate wellness specialist. "We spend over $100 million annually in healthcare costs. We see it as a win-win situation. Cliffs saves money and our employees are healthy."

For these wellness programs to be successful, explains David Michael Rosenberg, medical director of corporate health for University Hospitals, support must come from the top. "There has to be buy-in from the executives of the company," he says. "Management has to believe wellness is important and set a good example so employees will follow."

And it need not be too complicated, he adds. Simple educational programs such as free fruit, health fairs and motivational awards help promote involvement in wellness initiatives. "All of these activities don't cost too much and set the tone for what the company wants to stress," says Rosenberg. "They stress for the employee the importance of wellness."

John Pounardjian, a development coordinator at Lerner Research Institute, used the Clinic's wellness program to completely change his lifestyle. At the age of 21 he was overweight and suffered from fatty liver disease. He joined Weight Watchers in 2009, took advantage of the free fitness center and started running. He has since lost 97 pounds and recently ran the Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon.

"To me it was sort of the exclamation point in my weight loss journey," Pounardjian says of the marathon, which he completed in just over four hours. "Before this I couldn't even run a half mile. I ran a 5K in September 2009 and my goal was to just finish. I kept running from there."

Whereas he used to drive past the gym every day on his way home from work, Pounardjian now is a regular at his employer's on-site fitness center. Although he deserves much of the credit for his dramatic transformation, he says he could not have done it without help.

"I wouldn't have been able to do this without the support of [my employer]," he says. "It's hard to do on your own."

Today, at the age of 25, Pounardjian weighs a lean 174 pounds and has completely reversed his fatty liver disease.

"Something just clicked," he says. "I decided I didn't want to be fat anymore."

Photos Bob Perkoski - except "before" photos
Photo 1: Scott Mishler in 2007 and currently
Photo 2: IT program manager for Eaton, Tom Jarc
Photos 3 - 5: John Panardjin, development coordinator at Lerner Research Institute (photos 4 & 5: John working out at the Cleveland Clinic)

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.
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