Community Competitions Spread Wellness Success

When employers sponsor communitywide competitions, the payoff extends beyond their organization

By Greg Goth May 12, 2016
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Many corporate wellness programs are as plain vanilla as it gets: Employees complete a biometric screening at the worksite, sign up for weight-management or tobacco-cessation courses, and receive a small incentive deposit into their health savings accounts for participating in the program or, sometimes, meeting a health goal. Occasionally, there may be bragging rights involved in a team-based fitness challenge such as a step-counting contest.

The administrators of some wellness programs, however, are expanding the appeal of their offerings. Some are encouraging spouses to join employees in the fitness challenges. Or they may offer wellness incentives for participation in community events and sports leagues. One employer, the University of Alabama, even sponsors a five-kilometer (5K) road race that welcomes members of the wider community while encouraging employees not already exercising to get off the couch—literally.

The payoff of these community outreach efforts extends beyond the benefits of healthier employees at individual organizations and can lead to better health communitywide.

The KCP&L Example

Kansas City Power & Light (KCP&L) exemplifies the sort of organization fully embracing the community wellness ethos. Recognized as one of the city's healthiest employers for 2015 by the Kansas City Business Journal (not the first time the company has won that honor), KCP&L last year expanded its quarterly well-being challenges to include employees' spouses. The company also continued its sponsorship of the Kansas City Corporate Challenge, a multiweek Olympic-style competition now in its 37th year with 29 events, including 5K and half marathon road races, golf, tennis, darts, and dodgeball. (The challenge should not be confused with the JPMorgan Chase Corporate Challenge 3.5-mile road race, held in 14 cities worldwide.)

KCP&L human resources senior director Kelly Murphy said the challenge, open to Kansas City-area businesses with up to 10,000 workers, has proved popular over the years with employees. She estimates about 400 of the company's 3,000 workers sign up every year, and even retirees inquire about participating. The camaraderie engendered by the challenge is continued year-round in pan-city recreational leagues that Murphy said serve as good practice for the main event.

The camaraderie engendered by the challenge is
continued year-round in recreational leagues. 

“Their skills stay fresh, and they stay active and get to know one another and build the teamwork that helps during the Corporate Challenge,” she said.

The inter-company challenge and the intra-company quarterly challenges are one of three legs that employees need to complete to gain wellness rewards. The others are completing a health risk assessment and biometric screening.

The Kansas City business community is taking the spirit of the challenge a step further, Murphy said. In 2014, the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City launched Healthy KC, a five-pronged effort at improving the region's overall health that includes a workplace wellness certification program inviting all local employers to participate.

Off the Couch

The Couch to 5K (C25K) training program, created in 1996 by Josh Clark, is gaining momentum in corporate wellness programs. The program, intended to get inactive people to enjoy physical activity through an incremental and relaxed approach to building strength and stamina, offers a vehicle for organizations to encourage workers to get out into the community.

Missouri State University, Springfield, has offered a C25K training program for four or five years to employees and their families, according to employee wellness coordinator Sheila Bowen. The program, usually offered once every semester, includes training and a gait analysis done by the university’s physical therapy academic department. Bowen said the program grew out of a marathon training program; the much shorter 5K races appeal to a wider audience. The event usually draws between 25 and 45 runners each time, Bowen said.

Those who verify they registered for a race are reimbursed their entry fees—up to $25—and Bowen offers small raffle prizes such as athletic ID bands or cooling towels during training sessions to motivate people to attend. However, though Bowen and her colleagues may recommend one of several area races, there's no restriction on which race runners may enter.

“Any race will do for that reimbursement,” she said. “They just have to show me proof they've registered.”

University of Alabama wellness coordinators took the C25K concept even further by creating a university-sponsored race, the Crimson Couch to 5K/10K, and invites the wider community to participate.

“We really needed a program that would motivate individuals who were doing absolutely nothing,” said Heather Clayton, coordinator for the office of health promotion and wellness at the university. Begun in 2009, the race was aimed at those who might have been intimidated by established races where the emphasis was on fast finishing times.

“They can do it at the pace they need to, that they have developed and worked up to,” Clayton said. “That was the motivating factor behind establishing the program, and it's done a great job in motivating that specific population.”

Employees who participate must complete a seven-week training program, tracked through an online portal, to receive wellness incentive payments.

Clayton estimates annual participation in the race, which also has a 10K event, at about 1,000. She said her office also works with other area races, including the Mayor's Cup 5K and the Tuscaloosa Half Marathon, in cross-promoting and offering discounts. Because the university is Tuscaloosa County's largest employer, with about 11,000 employees, Clayton said it's natural for it to play a prominent role in fostering community health.

“Partnering is key, not only for advertising and promoting, but to get that camaraderie within the community,” she said.

Keeping It Fresh

One of the hallmarks of dynamic community-friendly wellness programs is the willingness to adjust to employees’ preferences and how their organization fits into the larger community. For example, though Clayton said organizers were happy with the level of participation in the Crimson C25K program, they are going to skip the race this year. They opted to move it from a fall weekend to spring 2017. Given the immense popularity of the university's football team, Clayton said, the race was shoehorned in with many other events in the area on “off” or away weekends for the team in an attempt not to conflict with the football schedule. She hopes the new spring date will be more attractive to a wider audience.

At Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., which previously offered incentives for participation in community fitness events or leagues, the entire program is being re-evaluated with the rollout of its ImagineCare partnership with Microsoft.

John Malanowski, Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s chief HR officer, is a cyclist, and he said while getting some sort of wellness credit for being active would be “nice to have,” it’s more important that the organization’s staff see his example as helping to inculcate a culture of wellness, encouraging everyone to find activities they enjoy.

“As an employer, I can’t begin to think about all the things our staff wants to do,” Malanowski said. “We need to enable people and get them thinking about wellness. I'm a big fan of grassroots activities supported by the organization vs. ‘Here's a club, we expect you to come—or else.’ ”

For example, Dartmouth-Hitchcock co-sponsors a wintertime snowshoe hike. “It was originally organized by a few employees who approached our Live Well/Work Well employee wellness organization, who immediately agreed to provide the resources to organize the hike [and] provide safety materials and healthy snacks,” Malanowski said. “It’s turned into a popular event.”

Greg Goth is a freelance health and technology writer based in Oakville, Conn.

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