Tackling diabetes among employees helps to build a more resilient workforce.

Tackling diabetes among employees helps to build a more resilient workforce.

Workplace wellness programs may have started as a way to reduce employee healthcare costs, but they are gaining steam as a strategy to strengthen staff. And an area where they can have huge impact is in reducing the incidence of diabetes.

"Companies are looking beyond physical health. They want to create more resilient employees," says Carrie Alexander, managing consultant with Findley Davies, a company that provides creative HR solutions to businesses. A large part of her workday is spent helping others help their employees avoid debilitating disease.

Alexander says the idea of wellness is transforming over time. A subtle change is happening with employers focusing less on making healthcare cheaper and more on building a strong, robust workforce that will be successful and withstand whatever the next market fluctuations may bring.

Diabetes is an obvious target because it is so prevalent as a leading contributor to lingering illness and death. And in spite of education and medical advances, the incidence of diabetes continues to grow. This single disease, which is largely preventable through simple lifestyle choices, is a major cause of heart attack, stroke, blindness, kidney failure and the amputation of limbs.

Diabetes deeply affects quality of life, and that translates into major costs and lost productivity for employers.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, in a company with 1,000 employees: 120 have diabetes-34 of which are undiagnosed-and another 370 have pre-diabetes. Those diabetic and pre-diabetic employees will rack up $4 million in insurance costs annually for their employer, and those costs will rise another $750,000 annually for every 92 of the pre-diabetic employees who slip into the diabetic range.

Experts say reducing body weight by just seven percent can turn things around significantly, and coupling that with moderate exercise can reduce risk by 58 percent. So a 200-pound person who loses 15 pounds and takes a brisk walk most days of the week makes great strides toward being healthier and performing better.

Using a three-pronged approach of physical activity, healthy food choices and internal motivation, many companies are starting with the most basic office unit: the desk. Balance balls replace chairs to help build balance and strength. Standing desks are becoming popular, as are treadmill desks that move at a barely noticeable one mph. But at the end of an eight-hour day, the user has walked eight miles and burned more than 1,500 calories.

Diet plays a huge role in wellness as companies work to make the experience fun. For company lunches and parties, Findley Davies often provides yogurt parfaits and a make-your-own smoothie bar or high-protein choices like a fajita bar or hummus and veggies. Free fruit in the break room is becoming a trend, and companies with cafeterias are providing healthier choices along with nutritional information.

Motivation often proves more successful when it lights a fire rather than rewards a past action. Psychologically, being paid for a task makes the task feel like a punishment, Alexander says. "The objective is to help people understand that wellness is fun," she says.

The success of workplace wellness programs shows in the morale of employees, but the bottom line still counts. Although it is difficult to make direct connections between wellness and profit, experts know there is a link-it is just difficult to see on a balance sheet.

"The whole wellness industry developed as a way to reduce medical plan costs, and CEOs wanted to know what the return on investment would be year over year," Alexander says. There are some things wellness efforts can't control, and so results might not be easy to see until looked at in retrospect a decade or more down the road.

Odds are in favor of those who make a concerted effort to tackle diabetes, and more employers are getting in on the effort. American Showa, a manufacturer of shock absorbers, operates two plants in Ohio and runs three shifts. They self-insure and go to great lengths to make wellness opportunities accessible to employees.

"We take a 360-degree approach to wellness," says Senior Wellness Programs Specialist Jillian Jacobs. "Our motto is 'get well, stay well.'" Each of the plants has a medical clinic staffed with physicians, nurse practitioners, exercise physiologists and therapists, with hours that make it simple for employees in any shift to stop in for a checkup.

There is also an onsite fitness center available to associates at any time. Clinic visits and use of the fitness center are free of charge to Showa employees. The company's frequent incentives to encourage people to get healthier sometimes take an outside-the-box approach. Right now, employees are virtually walking the Florida coastline.

Showa encourages all employees to participate in free health assessments to catch potential concerns before they get out of control.

"Maybe their A1C is elevated and it shows they are pre-diabetic," Jacobs says. "We want to catch these risk factors before it develops into diabetes." When a red flag is raised, the health team works with each employee to develop a schedule of health coaching and active encouragement that is ongoing until the problem is resolved.

With more than 1,000 employees at each of the company's two Ohio plants, staff health costs have the potential to be massive. Showa opened its first clinic at the Blanchester plant in 2010 and followed suit in Sunbury in 2012.

"We have seen improvement in the number of sick days, but the biggest change is in morale," Jacobs says. The employees are getting healthier and having fun doing it. Showa fielded several teams for this year's Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati. A culture of wellness is also making a major difference to individuals. Jacobs mentioned one employee who didn't know he had diabetes. Within six months of beginning monitoring and coaching, his blood sugar levels were back in normal range.

The Health Enhancement Research Organization, a leading think tank on workplace wellness, developed an online scorecard that examines many factors about a company and determines how well the company fares in wellness efforts as compared to others in the database. Employers can learn about best practices for increasing wellness in ways that will cause costs to drop over time. And they might just create a more robust workforce in the process.

Kristin Campbell is a freelance writer.