Employer wellness programs could benefit families

New York: Employers are in a potentially powerful position to help employees and their families make healthier choices, hints a new study conducted by the IBM Corporation.
Researchers from IBM and the University of Michigan found that a relatively inexpensive short-term intervention program can pay off particularly big for children`s health, and even for a company`s bottom line.

Whether or not participants would stick to their new healthy behaviors after the program ends remains unclear. In 2008, IBM launched an Internet-based "children`s rebate program" that let employees and their families choose from a selection of goals revolving around healthy eating, group physical activity, reduced "screen time" and positive parental role-modeling. A $150 check was offered as incentive to complete the 12-week program.

More than 22,000 employees signed on to participate, representing about half of all employees with children covered by IBM`s health plan. Approximately 12,000 finished the program and received the rebate.

"We wanted to extend the reach of what we do from a wellness standpoint beyond the individual employee and into their families," lead researcher Martin Sepulveda of the IBM Corporation in Somers, New York, told Reuters Health. "If you want to influence behaviors of human beings, the single most powerful locus is the family."

One of the company`s key motivating concerns was the rise in childhood obesity and diabetes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 200,000 American kids under the age of 20 have diabetes. Meanwhile, the rate of childhood obesity has more than tripled in the last 30 years.

"We considered this an important societal issue to tackle," said Sepulveda. "And employers have a responsibility to lead approaches to societal issues." Companies that offer employee health benefits also commonly offer wellness programs. However, the authors note, only about a third to a half of these firms provide health benefits for entire families, despite evidence that worksite interventions involving families can be more than twice as effective in promoting healthy eating as interventions targeting just the employee.

In the IBM study, the families` activities and progress were self-reported. Sepulveda and his colleagues intentionally avoided requiring participants to weigh-in or provide other body measurements to the company, to minimize privacy concerns that might put off anyone from joining.

The team found that employees were more likely to complete the program, as well as make substantial progress toward their goals, if they were female and had young children.
The largest improvements seen at the end of the study were in physical activity, with an average increase of 17 percent for families and 16 percent for children, the researchers report in the journal Pediatrics.

Families found it more difficult to cut down on screen time, however. Children reduced their time in front of the computer, TV or cell phone by about 8 percent, and their parents by 6 percent.

"Time spent using electronic digital equipment is a tough nut to crack," noted Sepulveda. "But physical activity was a major locus of (attention) and behavior change. And doing things together as families -- selecting foods, planning meals, controlling timing and portions -- all saw significant changes."

The benefits of such an intervention also extend to the employer. For example, children who are obese and have type 2 diabetes incur five times the health care costs of a child that is neither obese nor diabetic, noted Sepulveda. He added that unhealthy kids also substantially slow a parent`s productivity.

Further, the researchers note that a Web-based program, such as the one implemented at IBM, could be cost-efficient for employers, as well as convenient for employees. "On a per capita basis, this is really cheap. The most expensive part was the rebate," Sepulveda said. The program itself was only one third the cost of the rebate, he pointed out, and such incentives may not even be necessary for companies that have already succeeded in engaging their employees in workplace health programs.

Sepulveda and his team do recognize some limitations to their study. Employees who volunteered for the program may have been more motivated to make healthy changes than those who did not participate. And without a comparison group, the researchers were unable to determine if the intervention was the true source of the health improvements.
"Adults have to model responsible behavior and create a healthy environment at home if we stand a chance of reversing the things that lead our young people to become obese and diabetic," said Sepulveda.

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