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Building a wellness program from scratch


COLUMBIA, Md.—"Wellness" popped up on Chuck Andrews' radar screen not long after becoming vp of corporate services at Bowles Fluidics Corp., a maker of windshield washer nozzles in Columbia, Md.

Faced with the company's health insurance renewal, he began to hunt for ways to tame rising health care costs. A wellness program that reduced health risks appeared to be a way to stem the tide.

"I just really dove into it and did a lot of studying and found that I could probably pick and choose and design it," Mr. Andrews said.

He started by tapping a wellness team, drawing members from various functions throughout the 200-employee company that ranged from administration to production. The team's vision was to improve the mental and physical health of employees through fun and fitness.

The program, begun in March 2006, included educational elements and physical activities. Bowles held "Lunch and Learn" sessions, inviting speakers through its membership in the Columbia Assn., a nonprofit organization that provides a variety of amenities to Columbia residents and association members, and from its health insurer, UnitedHealthcare, at no cost to the company. It began distributing a monthly health newsletter with paychecks. Free onsite health screenings gave employees a chance to check their weight, blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels.

To get people moving, the company awarded activity points for participation in any type of physical fitness. All participants received T-shirts and pedometers. Individuals reaching certain levels were eligible for a grand prize drawing.

"We wanted people to be active--not just here at work, which is sometimes difficult. We wanted to capture their activities in their personal lives," Mr. Andrews said. "So if someone worked out at a gym or if someone played basketball or if someone just went for a walk, which everyone can do, those counted as points toward our activity goals."

The activities were converted into a single measure--calories burned from walking--and charted on a map as part of a team challenge dubbed "Walk Around the World."

"We have a very culturally diverse population here," Mr. Andrews said. For many employees, playing football, basketball, softball or working out at the gym is not part of their culture. "But everybody walks," he added, "so we wanted to come up with something that would appeal really to all of these different cultures and really resonated with everyone."

Last year, employees traveled more than 9,000 virtual miles, making it to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

On a whim, Bowles entered its program into a Workplace Wellness awards competition cosponsored by the Horizon Foundation, a Columbia, Md., health care philanthropic organization, and the Howard County, Md., Chamber of Commerce.

Bowles captured first place, taking home a $2,500 prize that the windshield washer nozzle maker will reinvest in this year's wellness initiatives, officials said.