Ken Visser knew he needed to get into shape. He also knew it would
take "a kick in the pants" for him to begin.
Visser's kick came from an unlikely source: his employer, Silver
Spring, MD-based Discovery Communications Inc. Since joining the
global media and entertainment company in December, Visser has participated
in a weight-loss competition, attended an exercise boot camp and
shaved pounds and inches off his 42-year-old body.
None of which surprises Evelyne Steward, Discovery's vice president
for life work. Last year, the company's 5,000 employees worldwide
lost close to 3 tons of weight. And it wasn't by accident. Discovery
has made taking care of employees' health a key business strategy.
"We very much believe a healthy employee is going to make a wealthy
company," Steward says.
Discovery is among a growing group of U.S. businesses that have
made that bottom-line connection and are acting on it. The privately-held
company was just named one of Working Mother magazine's 100 best
companies for working mothers, and CEO Judith McHale was honored
as 2004's family champion. Among Discovery's lauded programs:
- An onsite health and wellness center at the company's Silver
Spring headquarters, staffed by a physician and nurse practitioner.
- The Employee Body Challenge Competition, a 12-week, global
competition that helps employees shed weight and trim inches.
- A sports and fitness reimbursement policy.
- Onsite massage therapy, health fairs and health screenings
for vision, hearing, osteoporosis and mental health, among others.
That diversity of offerings is reflected in other companies on
Working Mother's list. Genentech, an NYSE-traded biotech company
based in South San Francisco, offers a five-week exercise boot camp.
Outdoor outfitter Timberland (NYSE:TBL) provides employees canoes,
kayaks and snow shoes for their workouts. Household-product manufacturer
SC Johnson has built an actual park for its employees and their
families to use.
Why this push?
U.S. businesses lost 280 million workdays last year because of
stress-related illnesses, says Carol Evans, CEO of Working Mother
Media. They lose the equivalent of $600 per worker each year because
of unanticipated absences. Those numbers, coupled with the skyrocketing
cost of health insurance, put the onus on companies to pay attention
to -- and do something about -- their employees' health.
"Instead of treating the illness, they're treating the person,"
While keeping employees healthy will benefit any company, wellness
programs are still primarily the purview of large companies. According
to the Society for Human Resource Management's 2004 benefits study,
larger organizations are the ones offering help with weight loss,
smoking cessation, onsite fitness centers and nutritional therapy.
Yet the trend is changing. Sixty percent of all human resource
professionals SHRM surveyed said their companies offer onsite vaccinations.
Forty-three percent said they provide health screenings for high
blood pressure or high cholesterol.
And smart companies recognize that if they want to grow, they need
to pay attention to keeping employees healthy -- regardless of their
"That's what keeps them growing," says Roslyn Stone, chief operating
officer of Corporate Wellness Inc., a health services company based
in Mount Kisco, NY.
Besides, companies that aren't already offering wellness programs
may soon find themselves forced to, says Evans. Otherwise, they
won't be able to attract and keep the best and the brightest.
"The war for talent is going to get much worse," she says. "You
need to secure the talent, you need to keep the talent in place.
You're training talent, and you don't want to lose them."
Wellness offerings help retain workers by increasing productivity,
improving customer relations and boosting morale, Evans says. Best
yet, they create company loyalty. If a business can help its employees
lose weight, stop smoking or get in shape, "how do you think they're
going to feel about that company?"
It's a sentiment Discovery's Visser echoes.
"It's a pretty special company" he says of his employer. "Discovery
is what a company should be and may have been in the past, but you
rarely find anymore."
Susan Bowles is a business journalist based in Washington, DC.
She has 20 years journalism experience and has written for USA Today,
USATODAY.com, the Washington Post, the St. Petersburg Times and
The Palm Beach Post.