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Stepping to success: California employer finds walking program yields healthier employees at surprisingly low price

By Kevin Sweeney - EmployeeBenefit News
June 15, 2011

For too many employers, poor health and well-being comes at a hefty price in terms of increased health care costs and decreased productivity. But for one California-based company, the path to a more healthy, happy workforce has come at hardly any cost at all.

Last year, Irvine, Calif.-based KimStaffHR explored various options to get its employees motivated to lead a more active lifestyle, both on and off the job. As might be expected, the company considered some of the usual suspects during their initial planning.

"The biggest part of it was being healthy, and there was a core group of us interested in losing weight," says Sheila Kepler, KimStaffHR's president of five years. "We looked at Weight Watchers, as well as a nutritionist, coming in to help our employees. As we looked at all the different programs out there, we decided to put a process together ourselves."

This was all driven from Kepler's office and flowed down. Such a top-down approach is the key to success of any wellness program offered by organizations, but particularly for smaller companies the size of KimStaffHR, which has about 25 employees.

"You have to have someone who is the catalyst from the management level down," notes Jeanine Dillard, vice president of operations. "The health and well-being of our employees is a theme of our company, and our champion was Sheila."

Beyond Kepler, the driver for the program adopted by KimStaffHR was actually inspired by a book: "ICount: 10 Simple Ways to a Healthy Lifestyle," authored by Susan Parks and Patricia Bonavia. "ICount" argues that the failure to engage in an active lifestyle can result in a huge hit to organizations across the country in terms of health-related costs, lost productivity and employee attrition. Companies can avert these potentially detrimental costs by encouraging their employees to take a few simple steps.

The premise of the book is that even with busy schedules and hectic lives, individuals can still engage in simple activities that will lead to a stronger mental and physical condition.

For KimStaffHR executives, this was exactly the formula that would fit into the lives of their busy employees. And they quickly learned all it took was putting one foot in front of the other.


Walk the line

Sold by both the convenience factor and the no-cost price tag, Kepler and Dilliard challenged their employees to embrace one of the "ICount" core principles - walking leads to health and wellness.

The organization did not require any of its employees to take part in the program, recognizing that some might not feel comfortable doing so. Instead, they introduced the idea to their workforce and supported those who expressed interest.

Weekly meetings were held to focus on not just weight loss alone, but on how employees could incorporate more movement into their day. Innovation became commonplace when discussions began.

So last November, nearly half of KimStaff's workforce embarked on a path toward a healthier lifestyle. With the goal to march 10,000 steps daily, employees walked at home, at work and all points in between.

The company recognized that it needed to incorporate this new wellness routine into the workday. To accomplish this, meetings are now held outside, with workers walking while discussing items that normally would be handled in a conference room setting.

During the winter months, the halls of the office became the walking grounds, as the employees refused to let weather interrupt their wellness efforts.

"It has become a game - often you will also find individuals walking in place or, when we had some recent rain, some employees got their steps in by walking the parameters of our training room," Dillard notes. "We now walk on a daily basis for our breaks."

The executives note that their discussions while walking can also be more enlightening as thoughts can be crisper and clearer when combined with this simple physical activity.

"The key point we want to get across is that we care about everyone here," Dillard says. "We had people unhappy with themselves. It was impacting work. We knew walking would improve our lives. We were able to do something that would benefit any employee."

As of March, KimStaff's employees had lost over 100 pounds by adopting the program. And although the weight loss is impressive, the workforce has benefited from feeling healthier, happier and like a more cohesive unit, according to Kepler and Dillard.

Outside of work, employees still get together to wear their walking shoes and have even scheduled weekend excursions together. Though the pounds undoubtedly will continue to come off, the camaraderie will be invaluable to a more collaborative workforce.

Though its wellness-by-walking program still is in the early stages, KimStaffHR is convinced the benefits of the simple, yet diligent, work of their employees will pay off in its own health care costs. For example, chronic illnesses such as high blood pressure are coming under control, and execs ultimately believe the program will lead to less office visits and medication needs.

In addition, the company is taking its wellness message to all the clients it serves. "We serve so many small businesses in our community," Kepler says. "I have been to many open enrollment meetings with client,s and we have planted some seeds. I feel that as an employer, you've got to take that extra step. You can't turn away because it is your business."

Company leaders speak at various functions to further underscore the benefits of walking to both workers and organizations alike. And they continue to tout the fact that the program is virtually cost-free.

"Everybody focuses on the cost to be healthy," Dillard says. "One of the key points is that you have don't have to spend tons of money to start a program like this. We have a lot of clients, and we have to walk the walk, literally."

Some workers tracked their progress with pedometers and walked with their families, fostering a healthy lifestyle in the home as well. And with members of employees' families likely participating on the health plans of KimStaffHR employees, the cost savings from reduced health care claims can multiply time and again.

The enthusiasm has also spread to other businesses that surround KimStaff in its business complex. Seeing many of the same faces walking outside day after day has inspired other organizations to take the same steps toward physical and mental fitness.

And employees have connected on social sites, such as Facebook, to build a community supportive of their goals and one another.

"We've built a culture here, and it's recognized here," Dillard says. "It helps to build self-esteem. Our personalities are positive, and it goes from the top down. Walking is the easiest thing to do, there is no excuse. If people stay committed to it, this will change their lifestyle. It did not cost us money and was a simple, but effective change in the workplace."

Kevin Sweeney, a former EBN associate editor, is a freelance writer based in New Brunswick, Md.