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Does Your Employer Help You Stay Healthy?
Pitney Bowes provides walking paths and Aetna helps pay for weight-management classes. But companies overlook an easy way to help workers be healthier: time off.
By Anne Fisher, FORTUNE senior writer

Everybody's aware of the skyrocketing cost of health care in the U.S. and of how worried employers are about their share of the tab. Many of us have even seen some fallout close to home, in the form of skimpier health benefits (higher deductibles, higher co-payments for doctor visits, and the like). So it's interesting to note that about 240 big companies have banded together to create a national nonprofit organization called the National Business Group on Health, aimed at figuring out how to solve at least some of our current health care system's woes.

Of course, lowering health care costs depends partly on keeping people healthier, so the group has started bestowing a new honor -- the "Best Employers for Healthy Lifestyles" award -- on companies that go out of their way to do that. Some of the winning tactics include installing walking routes and hiking paths around workplaces; urging employees to have regular checkups; and stocking cafeterias and vending machines with more fruit, more grains and foods containing less fat and salt. NBGH hopes other employers will copy these examples. For a full list of the 22 honorees and what they're doing, see http://www.businessgrouphealth.org. Here's a sampling:

  • Pitney Bowes created a system of walking paths. They also hand out free pedometers so employees can keep track of how many miles they put in.
  • Union Pacific Railroad has an online system called HealthTrack that can create a customized health plan for each of its 48,000 employees.
  • Employees of Aetna can earn financial incentives of up to $345 a year for participating in weight-management and fitness courses.
  • GE Energy's Health by Numbers Program is available in seven languages at all GE Energy locations worldwide. It's based on a formula of 0-5-10-25: Zero tobacco use, five daily servings of fruits and vegetables, 10,000 steps a day (or 30 minutes of moderate exercise daily), and striving to maintain BMI (body mass index) of less than 25. The program includes online motivational tools and personal coaching to help people meet their goals.
  • PacifiCare Health Systems gives its employees discounts for belonging to gyms that are part of a national chain and attending weight-loss clinics. The company also offers an online program designed to encourage employees to exercise, eat right, and learn how to manage stress.

Ah, stress. It's worth noting that, in announcing these awards, the NBGH acknowledged a focus on fighting obesity, which leads to medical problems believed to cost employers about $13 billion annually. That's a lot of dough, but many experts estimate that chronically stressed-out employees end up with even higher medical bills. Maybe, if the NBGH really wants to encourage companies to get a grip on health-care spending, the group should give an award to employers who routinely allow people to take vacations and -- an even bigger plus -- to leave them alone to relax when they do so, without expecting them to call in or keep an eye on e-mail every day (or every hour).

Something to ponder now that the summer vacation season is in full swing: A survey by Hudson, a staffing company (http://www.Hudson.com), says that 34% of all employees check in with the office so frequently while on vacation that they come back to work "either more stressed than, or just as stressed as, when they left." The percentage among managers, the poll found, is even higher -- 39%. "Even though managers are among the guiltiest in this respect," says Alicia Barker, Hudson's vice president of human resources, "they should understand that this behavior increases the chances of early burnout among their best and brightest." Not to mention the eventual likelihood of stress-related heart disease for far too many of those managers themselves.

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