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North Hills Monthly

Wellness Programs Benefit the Community as a Whole

Jan 29, 2016 05:23PM ● By Jill Cueni Cohen
If you work for a large company, chances are you’re probably involved in some sort of wellness program. According to, corporate wellness programs are intended to improve and promote the health and fitness of employees, although insurance plans may offer them directly to their enrollees. A wellness program allows your employer or plan to offer you premium discounts, cash rewards, gym memberships, and other incentives to participate. Some examples of wellness programs include programs to help you stop smoking, diabetes management programs, weight loss programs and preventative health screenings.

There are many good reasons for companies to establish wellness programs, including the fact that current employees usually appreciate the gesture and take it into consideration when weighing their long-term options. Prospective employees may even consider a company’s wellness program as a deciding factor in taking the job.

Even small business owners are getting on the employer-provided health benefits bandwagon. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s most recent survey of employee health benefits, 91 percent of large employers (200 or more workers) and 49 percent of small employers now offer their employees wellness programs. Some companies are also offering a financial incentive to participate in or complete a wellness program, and Dr. Shannon Thieroff of Wexford agrees with this practice. “Instead of presenting health screenings as something employees have to do, getting healthy should be something they want to do,” she said. 

As owner and founder of HealthyWorks, LLC, a corporate resource that specializes in helping area companies establish wellness programs, Thieroff explained that the most important aspect in developing a company wellness plan is to develop a culture of wellness. “Putting a program in place makes sense from a bottom-line perspective, but only if it speaks to the culture of the company and can be used in real time,” she said. “You have to think about the particulars of your culture and make decisions around that. Having a framework and a technology platform makes sense but only if you have the support around it.”

Companies are starting to use resources on-site like health awareness days and lunch-and-learn series, and these sorts of programs have a ripple effect on the rest of the community as employees’ children and spouses are also affected. One popular provider of wellness programs is the YMCA, and their corporate clients provide the setting for a healthy ripple effect.

Carolyn Grady, senior vice president of development for the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh, said that many local companies and organizations partner with the Y to actively improve the health and overall quality of life of their employees…and then some. “Our dollars are reinvested in the community,” Grady said, noting that anyone who supports the Y is making more of an impact than they think.

“As a member of the Y, you’re not only improving your own health, you’re contributing to the overall health of the community, because the Y is there for everyone,” said Grady, adding that wellness is about more than just physical health. “We have three priorities: to close the achievement gap, eliminate health disparities between communities, and provide food security and aid to financially struggling families.” The Y provides a variety of services across Allegheny County, and no one is turned away because they can’t afford a membership.

Thieroff said that her company often turns to the YMCA as a resource for health fairs and implementing on-site classes. “They go in as the provider of a specific service and that’s great because their mission has always been clear—physical activity and social responsibility.”

Companies just starting a wellness program should be advised that the entire process takes approximately three years, said Thieroff. She advises her clients to work backwards on this goal and to increase accountability over time. “You have to decide what you’re going to measure (weight, blood pressure, smoking cessation, etc.), to see what’s successful. Are employees engaged and compliant? If you can start to move those numbers and measure them, you can overlay this with financial gains and progress.”

Coaching that takes place on-site or over the phone is a good way to inspire people to want to switch out donuts for healthier meal options and use smoking breaks to walk around the block instead. “People change their lives when they have an emotional reason to,” noted Thieroff, citing issues like health emergencies or the birth of a baby as the impetus to sudden change. “Companies can instead use interpersonal relationships and tie-ins to make people want to change and then the company culture needs to support that. In smaller companies it’s more noticeable when you’re down a person or someone is too tired or sick, and it affects everyone else.”

She added, “When we support each other, the whole community benefits and gets stronger—in every way.”