Healthy Employees, Healthy Companies

Corporate health programs may be coming to your workplace soon. A Las Vegas businesswoman explains why that’s a good thing.

Photographs by Jim K. Decker

Now, that’s work: Instructor GayLynn Byrd with Houldsworth, Russo & Company employees at Henderson’s Tony Cress  Personal Training.

Now, that’s work: Instructor GayLynn Byrd with Houldsworth, Russo & Company employees at Henderson’s Tony Cress
Personal Training.

“I’m old, and I like to drink wine,” deadpans Dianna Russo, managing partner of the accounting firm Houldsworth, Russo & Company, to explain why she’s at Tony Cress Personal Training in Henderson on a cold, wet November weekday afternoon. The fans are blowing inside the gym, but Russo is sweating anyway—the result of a 30-minute TRX session.

Of course, Russo—a wispy blonde of 45—is hardly old, and her love of pinots has little to do with the real reason she’s here: Momentum 3. This corporate wellness program, which Russo implemented a year ago, is a harbinger of things to come. Bolstered by a decade’s worth of data, and turbo-boosted by Obamacare, worksite health programs such as Momentum 3 are poised to sweep corporate America.

The Houldsworth, Russo & Company program started with what coordinator and personal trainer GayLynn Byrd dubs a “power meeting,” a three-hour introduction and goal-setting powwow, after which employees could decide whether they wanted to participate for the full 12 weeks. During that time, employees got a free workout each Thursday at 4 p.m. at the Cress facility. In addition, Byrd would go to the office each week for those who wanted a check-in on body fat, meal plans or “gratitude journals,” as she calls her motivational writing assignments.

This suggests the trifold nature of Momentum 3, whose motto is “spirit, nutrition, exercise”—in that order, Byrd stresses. “Your head and your heart have to come together before you decide to do anything, so we put that first,” she says. “Nutrition would be second, because you can’t out-exercise what you put into your body. And third is exercise and training.”

houldsworth_russo_group_fitness_by_jim_k._decker_02_WEBEach participant gets a booklet with bull’s-eye maps for diet, exercise, and rest and rejuvenation. It includes advice on how to order when eating out, sample meal plans and images showing proper alignment in basic exercises.

The program was a huge hit with Russo’s all-female staff. She estimates nine of the 13 total employees showed up to the gym consistently, and Byrd says all made improvements in baseline health measures, such as weight and endurance. When the firm asked employees whether they wanted a second 12-week round of sessions—gym-only this time—two-thirds said yes. By year’s end, in its second extension, Momentum 3 was drawing seven regulars. “I’m giving them something that they want, a chance to bond outside of just happy hour,” Russo says. “And maybe we can affect [health insurance] premiums and performance.”

There’s a forehead-slap aspect to the idea of offering employees wellness services. Staff members who stay healthy can work longer hours and call in sick less, which benefits employers. Thus went early conventional thinking on the subject. In the early 2000s, researchers turned their attention to the business case for worksite health programs, asking whether companies actually get a measurable return on their investment in employee health. In 2003, public health expert Larry Chapman spearheaded a meta-study of existing data, concluding that investment in worksite health programs led to a 25 percent reduction in group health costs.

The Chapman Institute’s updates to the original study, as well as outside research, support its initial conclusions. In 2005, the Commonwealth Fund estimated that sick days reduced U.S. productivity to the tune of $260 billion in lost economic output annually. On the flipside, healthy employees are more productive; a 2012 study published in Population Health Management concluded that employees who had unhealthy diets and exercised occasionally were much less productive than those who ate right and exercised regularly.houldsworth_russo_group_fitness_by_jim_k._decker_03_WEBhouldsworth_russo_group_fitness_by_jim_k._decker_04_WEB

None of this was lost on the Obama administration, which made health care reform its top priority. The Affordable Care Act is generally prevention-focused, and among its many provisions are a few specifically pertaining to workplace wellness. One section, for instance, authorizes funding for small-business worksite health program grants. Another directs the secretary of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to evaluate current initiatives and policies. Accordingly, the CDC has set up its National Healthy Worksite Program, which will help as many as 100 small businesses put together wellness programs, and then study them in order to develop best practices that others can follow.

Clearly, Russo is ahead of this curve. That may help explain why Houldsworth, Russo & Company took third place in the “micro” category of the Southern Nevada Human Resources Association’s Best Places to Work for 2013. Indeed, the motivation behind Momentum 3 indicates a broader progressive HR philosophy.

“I believe in respecting the people you work with,” Russo says. “I’m not the boss. We’re a team, and we work together. … These people work so hard for me, and they’re the best employees anybody could ever have. I want to give them whatever I can to make their job better.”

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