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Take advantage of workplace wellness programs

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More than 90% of employers with 200 or more workers have some type of health promotion program in place
Increasingly, workers are finding health-related programs offered at work. Have you checked your options?

Cassia Soldano says she hit rock bottom after her second child was born in 2012 and her weight climbed to 320 pounds. She knew she needed to do something about it.

"As soon as I had my son, it hit me. I had to make a change," says the 37-year-old public affairs professional from Canoga Park. "I felt I owed it to my children."

So she turned to her employer for help.

There, she found a host of wellness programs to help her get physically active, reduce stress and learn about healthful eating habits. Soldano says she now spends her lunchtime and other work breaks taking walks — about 45 minutes in total on most days.

Increasingly, workers are finding health-related programs available through work, and they're not just incentives to exercise more. Many employers are also starting to penalize employees who smoke or who are overweight.

For many employers, it's all part of keeping a lid on escalating healthcare costs.

Chronic "lifestyle diseases" such as diabetes and heart disease are on the rise. And unhealthful habits such as smoking, lack of exercise, excessive alcohol consumption and poor nutrition are widely seen as major contributors. These illnesses often lead to higher healthcare costs for employers, and can even lower employee productivity.

That's one reason programs to help people lose weight, stop smoking and better manage chronic illnesses are so popular these days.

According to the U.S. Labor Department, more than 90% of employers with 200 or more workers have some type of health promotion or disease-prevention program in place.

And all signs point to more such programs ahead. "We're seeing significant growth in the employer adoption of lifestyle and wellness programs," says Sandy Ageloff of the professional services company Towers Watson.

With more Americans being nudged to take charge of their health, experts offer insights about wellness programs, how they operate and consumers' rights to opt out.

Find out what's available. Want to lose weight, reduce your blood pressure, stop smoking? There's probably help at work.

Companies are increasingly offering exercise areas at work, anti-stress seminars, discounted gym memberships, smoking cessation programs, diabetes counseling and even free wristbands to track your daily physical activity.

Expect more pressure to get involved. Once, you might have received a reward for simply participating in wellness programs — say, by filling out a health risk assessment.

Today, more employers are requiring workers to show they've actually made progress toward weight-loss goals or efforts to lower blood pressure.

According to a recent survey by Towers Watson and the National Business Group on Health, about 1 in 5 employers are tying rewards and penalties to the achievement of certain goals, such as weight loss or cholesterol management.

The survey found that 42% of companies say they reward or penalize employees based on tobacco use. And that number is expected to climb to 58% by 2015.

In some cases, companies are charging smokers more for health insurance. These insurance surcharges average about $520 a year, according to the survey.

You must be offered alternatives. By law, employers have to offer alternative ways of earning incentives or avoiding penalties so as not to discriminate.

"It's important that you, the consumer, be aware that there may be alternatives for you for completing health behaviors that are being incented by your employer or health plan," says Josh Klapow, with ChipRewards, an Alabama firm that develops health incentive programs.

"Not every health action will have a reasonable alternative," he adds, "but if in doubt you are well within your rights to ask your employer or health plan if a reasonable alternative exists."

In other words, you may be able to avoid a smoking surcharge by participating in a smoking cessation program, even if you ultimately are unable to quit.

Wellness programs are for healthy workers too. There's often something for everyone, says Debbi Brooks, a vice president of OnLife Health Inc., a Tennessee health and wellness company.

"It's a tremendous benefit people are getting from their employer," she said of wellness programs. "You're talking to personal trainers and nutritionists that if you paid for yourself would cost you a lot of money.

"I don't see enough people taking advantage of them," she says.

In addition, technology has dramatically changed the way these programs operate, Brooks says. Wearable devices, such as the Fitbit, and phone apps enable you to track your physical activity and calories burned. In some cases, you can share updates with co-workers through social media apps that allow you to track others' progress as you track your own.

"You're able to access wellness on the road and connect with devices to eat, exercise and sleep right, and the data is sent on your behalf so there's no work for you to do" to earn incentives, Brooks says.

No programs at work? Ask your insurer. Millions of Americans buy health insurance on their own rather than get it at work. If that's your situation, check directly with your insurer to learn what types of programs may be available.

"Ask about any kind of coaching or online program around weight management, nutrition, stress management, sleeping, smoking cessation, even back pain," says Elisa Mendel, national vice president of Kaiser Permanente's HealthWorks and Product Innovation.

Most insurance companies, Mendel says, have some type of offering.

Soldano, the public affairs professional from Canoga Park, has dropped more than 60 pounds in the last two years. Without the help she got on the job, it would have been tough to pull it off, she says.

"I'm very thankful for the fact that it's here," Soldano says of her work-based exercise program. With two young children, she says, "it would have been very challenging to add it to my evening program."

healthcare@latimes.com

Zamosky is the author of "Healthcare, Insurance, and You: The Savvy Consumer's Guide.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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