How to Invest Employees in Their Own Wellness

By Dawn Weddle
Manager, Global Health and Wellness Services
Navistar, Inc.

If properly handled, company wellness programs are a win-win. Healthy employees are likely to be happier and more productive. And wellness programs show great potential for helping to control runaway healthcare costs, which are a problem for both companies and their employees.

That’s certainly true at Navistar, the truck and engine maker based in the Chicago suburb of Lisle, Ill. Navistar’s wellness initiatives are part of an overall strategy called “Vital Lives,” which improves employees’ health while also holding down costs.

Vital Lives works because it encourages employees to take a personal stake in their own wellness. It focuses on three kinds of prevention:

  1. Primary prevention, which seeks to prevent smoking, obesity and other risk factors;
  2. Secondary prevention, which manages or reduces these risk factors in order to prevent disease;
  3. And tertiary prevention, which aims to manage disease in order to prevent catastrophic consequences. 

Primary prevention holds enormous potential. At Navistar, it starts with offering each employee an annual, confidential health risk assessment (HRA), which identifies ways to address behaviors that increase the risk of current and potential health issues.

In 2011, nearly four thousand Navistar employees—and many of their spouses—took advantage of the HRA option. By doing so, they became eligible for reduced healthcare premiums, as well as increased employer contributions to their medical spending accounts.

Building on the HRA are coaching programs that help employees deal with issues such as smoking cessation and weight loss. Weight loss coaching helped 53% of participants lose weight—with an average loss of 8.3 pounds. And 45% of participants who enrolled in a smoking cessation program were able to quit smoking.

Then there are exercise programs, which Navistar supports by offering incentives—and frankly, by making exercise fun.

Healthy employees are likely to be happier and more productive.

The program with the highest profile is “Trucking Across North America” (TANA). Over 13 weeks, teams of five to 10 employees compete to see who can log the most exercise miles, as measured on their pedometers. The target for each team is to “truck” a roundabout route that “visits” four company facilities—from Garland, Texas to Springfield, Ohio to Las Vegas to Mexico City.

TANA started out in 1994, with seven employee teams. By 2011, after 18 years, it had expanded to 500 employee teams at 43 company locations—with 4,210 employees taking part. That’s one-third of all eligible employees.

In 2011, 54% of TANA’s sedentary participants said the program helped them shift to a more active lifestyle. Meanwhile, 98% of all participants reported that TANA helped them either improve or maintain their health status.

The program also displayed real bottom-line impact. Based on an evaluation of reduced health risk factors, the resulting improvement in employees’ regular exercise contributed to estimated yearly health care cost savings of $477,300. 

Inspired by their North American colleagues, in 2011, Navistar’s South American employees launched their own Walking Group program. There, employee teams target a distance of more than 1,400 miles—the distance between Navistar’s São Paulo and Canoas, Brazil facilities.

Other Vital Lives wellness tools include “Spring Tune-Up,” a six-week nutrition program; “Body Overhaul Challenge,” a 12-week weight loss program; and a wealth of online and in-person resources. And Navistar makes it easy for employees to exercise and eat right, with a new world headquarters that includes two fitness centers, a cafeteria with multiple healthy choices, and four “walkstation” treadmills that allow employees to work while they exercise.

Overall, 73 percent of Navistar employees reported participating in one or more Vital Lives programs during the past 12 months. They needed fewer prescriptions, doctor visits and hospitalizations as a result of this preventive care.And thanks to its innovative health improvement strategies, Navistar has been able to maintain flat or reduced health care costs per employee each year since 2004, despite annual national health care inflation in the range of 6 to 12 percent. That translates to nearly $2.7 million in annual cost avoidance savings.

Since 2009, Navistar has reinforced these wellness programs with a broader sustainability initiative called PROMISE (Personal Recollection of My Individual Sustainability Efforts). Participating employees pledge to engage in safe and healthy behaviors, to choose options that save energy and are environmentally friendly, and to volunteer their time for community improvement efforts. By keeping their individual “promise” in each of these areas, employees have the opportunity to influence Navistar’s contributions to relevant charities. In this way, healthy living is clearly linked to a broad citizenship focus.