Healthy, Wealthy and Wise: Extension's Worksite Wellness Programs a Smart Choice

August 28, 2012

CHILLICOTHE, Ohio -- Employers increasingly offer worksite wellness programs to employees, for good reason: a 2010 analysis in Health Affairs showed a decrease of $3.27 in medical expenses and $2.73 saved in absenteeism costs for every dollar invested in worksite wellness programs.

OSU Extension's Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS) educators give these efforts a much-needed shot in the arm.

"We can invite people to our educational programs, but it often works better if we go to them," said Lisa Barlage, the FCS educator in Ross County who has offered wellness programs not only in the county government building where she works but at the area's major employers, including Kenworth Corp., Glatfelter Corp., local school districts and the Chillicothe branch of Ohio University.

"Organizations are looking at ways to cut expenses on health insurance," Barlage said. "In many cases, if they can show ways they are working to improve the health of their employees, it helps them out."

One of those organizations is the Chillicothe and Ross County Public Library, where librarian Leslie Hartley works with Barlage to keep its wellness program strong.

The result? "We've changed a lot of our habits at work," Hartley said. "At meetings, we've cut out sweets and instead offer healthy snacks, like yogurt, granola or fresh fruit. We have fitness breaks at in-service meetings. And now, it's really getting ingrained in our staff. Even when we have potlucks, we don't even have to ask people to bring something healthy. It just naturally happens."  

The worksite wellness programs have boosted morale, too, Hartley said.

"We really felt the effect of the economy the last few years. We've had layoffs, and everyone has taken cuts in pay or hours. But we persevered through all of that, and the wellness program helped us through that rough time."

The library's program has been noticed, winning Healthy Ohio's Healthy Worksite Wellness award three years in a row, and a Psychologically Healthy Worksite Award from the Ohio Psychological Association in 2011.

"Our program wouldn't be as successful as it has been without Extension," Hartley said.

Barlage is working with a team of a dozen FCS educators around the state who share ideas and curriculum for worksite wellness programs. They also contribute to a blog, Live Healthy, Live Well (http://livehealthyosu.com), accessible to anyone who has the ability to get online. In addition, the team offers periodic online health and fitness challenges -- 810 people participated in three such challenges offered in 2011 alone.

"It really helps to get the word out and target new audiences for Extension," Barlage said. 

In similar efforts around the state:

  • Polly Loy, FCS educator in Belmont County, was approached by county commissioners about offering some type of wellness program to county employees. The first offering: an 11-week walking challenge, thanks to a $2,500 grant Loy received from the local Virginia Gasaway Community Investment program. "We had 250 employees sign up -- we were just blown away by that," Loy said. "That's about half of the county employees in Belmont County. And more people called, but we didn't have the funds to take more participants."

    In addition, Loy holds wellness programs at several county worksites every other week. "We'll be doing more in the future, but this is our initial venture," Loy said. "I've been doing wellness programs in schools for years, so this is just the logical next step."

  • Carol Chandler, FCS educator in Union County, is working with the County Commissioners Association to develop plans for wellness programs in 28 counties that participate in the County Employee Benefits Consortium of Ohio, which has made a grant available for employee wellness programs.

    Of the 25 counties in the consortium, 11 have FCS educators, who work with their local county Wellness Teams offering health-related materials and lunch-and-learn programs. In counties without an FCS educator, employees are encouraged to participate in online Extension-sponsored health challenges through the Live Healthy, Live Well blog and to access other Extension materials.

"We're having a conversation to see how we can support their efforts," Chandler said. "I think the online challenges we offer, for example, are a great way employees can participate in programming even if there's not someone on site."

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Author(s): 
Martha Filipic
Source(s): 
Lisa Barlage, Leslie Hartley, Polly Loy, Carol Chandler