Searching for elusive wellness connection

The pioneer wellness research team is at it again. Grand Rapids, MI-based Steelcase Inc. and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, are out to prove that wellness actually does impact productivity.

"We want to measure the impact that health and wellness have on one’s effectiveness at work," explains Bob Paige, manager of Steelcase medical facilities and employee wellness. "We think there’s a correlation, but there aren’t a lot of studies out there that prove there is."

The pilot program, which began Jan. 1, involves a group of 100 employees. The university will participate in the research through both its wellness and business departments. "We’re looking to them to help us better measure the productivity side of the house," Paige explains.

Breaking down the barriers

The premise of the study is if the barriers to exercise are eliminated, employees will exercise more, be healthier (i.e. better blood flow and oxygenation), have higher self-esteem, and be more productive as a result. The employees in the study will be empowered to exercise more often, says Paige. For example, if an employee is going to be traveling soon and his or her child is participating in a school play during the regular exercise time, the employee will most likely choose to go to the play because they won’t see their child for a couple of days.

"We will tell them, yes, by all means get to the event, but be sure to do both. For example, if you’re in a job that is flexible and not task-oriented, and your day is open at 9 a.m., schedule that meeting with yourself and go exercise. Just because it is during your typical work hours, you don’t need to feel guilty about working out," he says.

For employees whose schedules aren’t quite as flexible, the researchers will create the opportunity for them to be reimbursed up to $500 a year for activities they do to exercise. Those opportunities, Paige says, will not be limited to traditional ones like fitness center membership reimbursement.

"Say you’re a runner. Maybe we will reimburse you for running shoes," Paige explains. "Or if you purchase a treadmill and document home usage, we could reimburse you for that."

The researchers ask two things of the participants: To participate in a Health Risk Appraisal (HRA) so they can measure biometrics, document their daily nutrition, level of exercise, and how much rest they get. To facilitate this, they created a Web page where the participant can sign on and click the appropriate information box, such as the type of exercise they have done. "It’s extremely user-friendly," says Paige.

Finally, each of the participants has been assigned a health coach to help them with their exercise programs.

Getting feedback

Their productivity will be measured in part through the Steelcase human resource information system. "We’ll obtain feedback on their performance by identifying the people they work with," says Paige. "The participants will give their own perspective and we’ll compare to that with how others see them."

A more scientific measurement will be provided with the help of the University of Michigan’s Robert Quinn, PhD, of the business college. (The health promotion center’s Dee Edington, PhD, will also be participating, as he has on several landmark Steelcase studies).

"Bob Quinn wrote the book Beyond Rational Management," notes Paige. "In it, he developed an instrument that plots and measures effectiveness. We hope to be able take our own instrument we use to measure effectiveness and communicate the aggregate information."

Quinn’s system, he explains, plots skill sets such as "commitment and morale," or "direction and clarity." The skill set findings for each participant will be compared to the mean Steelcase human resource professionals look for in that specific position.

While the HRA will be conducted only once or twice during the two-year study, "we may do [the effectiveness measurement] three or four times," says Paige.

He believes the study will help strengthen the bottom line connection for wellness. "We think wellness has an equation to productivity, and we definitely think there’s a financial advantage as well."

[For details, contact: Bob Paige, Steelcase Inc., P.O. Box 1967, Grand Rapids, MI 49501-1967. Telephone: (616) 247-2710. E-mail: Rpaige@steelcase.com.]