The dozen or so women sat on the floor, balancing their behinds on exercise balls, shifting their hips from side to side to get loose. They then moved the balls down their spines, stopping to inhale and exhale at each vertebrae. Before long, they were lying on their backs, the balls behind their heads like pillows.
This Yamuna body-rolling class wouldn't have been out of place at a fitness center. These ladies, however, were at work. Instead of using their lunch break to eat, these KU Endowment staffers decided to stretch out and relax.
Scenes like this one are becoming increasingly less out of the ordinary these days, as employers in Lawrence and around the country invest more time and money into improving the wellness of staff members. Initiatives include giving employees time off to exercise, swapping out the junk food in vending machines with more nutritious snacks, and offering discounts on insurance premiums in exchange for healthier lifestyle choices.
"Employees are your greatest asset," said Carolyn Crawford, coordinator of WorkWell Lawrence, which trains local companies how to improve wellness in the workplace. "Employers need to change the environment to help people be healthier. We are at work the majority of the day, so that's really a good place to think about being healthy."
Proponents of these efforts say the long-term savings are immeasurable: lower health-care costs, increased productivity and, not least of all, a healthier, happier workforce. A recent RAND Corp. study, however, found that despite significant investment from employers, wellness initiatives have limited benefits.
Still, many local companies continue to grow their wellness programs. Lawrence has had more employers (17) take part in WorkWell Kansas than any city in the state, including several more at a training earlier this month.
The city of Lawrence, which employs 750 full-time staff members, has had a wellness program for years but recently ramped up its efforts. Those include offering employees discounts to local health clubs and exercises classes, free participation in Parks and Recreation fitness programs with open slots, incentives for not smoking, a free health clinic, and help with creating a more nutritious diet.
"People work better and are more engaged in their work if they feel better and are healthier," said Lori Carnahan, human resources manager for the city. "Being healthy tends to make people happier — that's always good, at work and at home."
A major facet of many workplace wellness programs — including the city's — is to give personal health assessments, evaluating employees on such measures as blood pressure, cholesterol and lifestyle habits. The results are compiled anonymously, and employers then can see what areas staff members can improve upon, designing their wellness initiatives around them.
Kansas University Endowment started a wellness program, Building a Greater yoU, in 2007. According to coordinator Laurie Comstock, the 155 full-time staff members have improved on their biometric statistics, gone years with no or little increase in their health insurance premiums, and lost a collective 1,800 pounds since starting a Weight Watchers program in 2010. KU Endowment's initiatives have included installing a treadmill and elliptical machine in the building, planting a garden for use by employees, and putting in a sidewalk so staffers can more easily walk to other buildings on campus.
"KU Endowment feels that employees who are healthier in all aspects of their health are better employees and make the whole workplace operate better," Comstock said.
Other workplace changes starting to take hold include giving employees the ability to adjust their computers so they can stand while they work; installing treadmill desks; livening up stairwells with paint or music to make them more inviting to walk in; putting timers on staffers' computers to remind them to stand up and move around periodically; and taking part in Community Supported Agriculture programs that offer fresh produce from local farmers.
'A wonderful benefit'
How effective these programs are is the subject of debate. For instance, the RAND Corp. study found that they lead to only modest health-care savings and small reductions in areas like weight, smoking and cholesterol.
Tim Laurent, a Lawrence Parks and Recreation manager who sits on the city's wellness committee, said companies can offer these programs all they want — it's up to employees to take advantage. He readily admits that he lost 40 pounds in the city's Weight Watchers program but later gained some of it back.
"I think it's a wonderful benefit that they do this for city employees and they make it pretty easy for us to take advantage of these programs," he said. "But I think it's like anything else — it really boils down to the individual and how much effort they put into it."
For Rosita McCoy, the results are undeniable. The senior vice president for communications and marketing at KU Endowment said its wellness program helped her lose weight, make better lifestyle choices and improve her overall health and self-esteem.
"It's been a phenomenal opportunity for me," she said. "I'd been trying to lose weight for a long time, but when we could do Weight Watchers at Work during our lunch hours, it made it super easy to learn how to change my eating habits."
She started buying fresh fruit brought to the office by volunteers, learned how to meditate and got to see her "actual" age during a health assessment.
"It also helps because there is a little bit of peer pressure at work — you see other people losing weight and realize you need to get on the bandwagon," she said. "I just feel better. And it's funny now that I don't need all those salty snacks I was eating."