The idea that a company would pay employees to be stay well and healthy may sound frivolous. But in these days of tight labor markets and even looking at a company’s bottom line, it’s good business.

Though it is not yet commonplace in South Sound, increasing numbers of corporations are offering cash to employees who take an active role in keeping themselves well, whether it means fewer sick days, being less of a strain on the company’s health insurance plan or just plain exercising and being fit.

Studies show that employees who exercise are more likely to use less sick time, see the doctor less often and are in fact more productive than their less active counterparts, says Dan Donahue, wellness program coordinator at Providence St. Peter Hospital in Olympia. That’s in part why for the past five years his hospital has been offering $250 to employees who meet at least eight of ten wellness criteria.

The criteria include such activities as a hospital exercise program; signing a statement verifying that the employees have worn a seat belt or a helmet 100 percent of the time they’ve been in motor vehicles, cycling or rollerblading; achieving a healthy cholesterol level or reducing a high level by 10 percent; being at work at least 97.6 percent of the time; being in the recommended range for body fat or reducing it; reporting no work time loss due to pain or injury on the job; having a blood pressure reading below certain levels; no smoking and using less than $250 in health care benefits.

Nearly 700 employees—40 percent of the hospital’s 1,700 staff members—participate in some way in the hospital’s wellness programs, which include a variety of free educational classes as well as hospital gym activities.

About 350 actually meet the criteria needed to earn their extra cash incentive bonus. Those figures may not sound too high, but they actually are above-average for companies as a whole, Donahue says. Most companies have something closer to a 20-percent participation level.

“With the economy flying along, it’s a value-added thing to have in the house,” Donahue says. “It falls under the employee benefit umbrella. But the program really pays for itself in reduced health costs and higher productivity.

“It’s a cost-savings strategy, no doubt, but at the same time, it’s also a morale-boosting and an employee retention tool,” he adds. “When they’re in a healthier environment, people are more likely to stay. It’s really been a great program.”

So far, companies that use such programs tend to be the larger ones. Weyerhaeuser, for example, has a corporate-wide wellness program, Donahue notes.

Though some employees may not meet the required criteria for getting their bonus, they frequently learn more about and become more interested in their health as a result, Donahue says. And the hospital pays for classes to help employees stop smoking.

After St. Peter offered the program five years ago, it became the lowest health care system utilizer in the Providence 10-hospital system, and it still is, Donahue adds.

“The only way to get them in is to offer money,” Donahue says of the strategy. “Once you get them in, they may find their blood pressure is high and they never knew it. Our main goal is to raise awareness of their health risks.”

The hospital’s wellness program extends into the community as well. Cardiac rehabilitation patients, for example, also use the hospital’s facilities and are informed about such community activities as the Puget Sound Games. The Games is a non-profit, health-promoting organization concentrating on people over 50 supported and sponsored by associations and businesses throughout Washington. All told, the hospital has about 20 patients and more than 50 employees participating in the local Games this year from July 27-30. (For more information on the events, call (360) 413-0418 or visit www.intowww.com/pssg.html.

By Kamilla K. McClelland, Business Examiner staff