Oklahoma Businesses Making Strides with Employee Health Incentives, but Challenges Remain

Article excerpt

For a microcosm of what's behind Washington's health care debates, one need look no further than the challenges businesses face adapting employee wellness practices.

Widely seen as one step to help contain a firm's growing health care costs, Oklahoma's Certified Healthy Business Program was started in 2003 to recognize firms providing employee health and wellness incentives and services. More than 900 firms have received certification statewide, Tulsa Health Department Wellness Coordinator Jill Almond said, up from 497 in 2008. She said 66 Tulsa businesses have received certification, with 16 establishing tobacco- free policies.

"If your business is healthy, if people recognize that, it shows what your focus is," Almond told a Tuesday morning audience at the Tulsa Metro Chamber's Health Care Forum. "It shows what you believe in."

A number of companies have taken steps supporting healthier lifestyles, from providing exercise breaks and fitness center memberships to encouraging nutritional snacks and meals. However, Almond said many businesses fall short of enacting actual written policies.

"A lot of elemental pieces are in place," she said. "But policy is where we really need to hang our hat. We really need to develop that."

That stumbling block may reflect a number of factors, from embarrassing employees and forcing them to confront personal weaknesses to angering those seeking to protect personal freedoms.

"It's such a personal habit that we didn't want to step on anyone's toes," Plan Benefits Analysts Nutrition and Wellness Specialist Beth Miller said of adopting a tobacco-free policy.

Tulsa's Inverness Village embraced the healthy business concept.

"We really wanted a wellness culture," Wellness Director Jana Headrick said.

However, the retirement community operator has struggled with putting some sort of wellness performance measurements into a policy form.

"We're still kind of fumbling with that," Headrick said.

Cultural habits tend to interfere at Explorer Pipeline and others.

"We like to eat and we like to celebrate and we like to have that family culture," said Explorer Compensation and Benefits Administrator Michelle L. Griffith. "Those are all wonderful things."

But since that translates into frequent morning doughnuts and numerous birthday cakes, she said it naturally offsets many corporate wellness efforts.

"That is an area we struggle with and trying to find that balance where we can celebrate in other ways," she said. …