Several Eastside institutions are raising the bar for employee health

Workplace wellness programs once began and ended with employer-subsidized gym memberships. But these days, in the face of rising rates of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease, employers have re-evaluated and revamped the ways they help employees get and stay healthy.

Employee health affects the bottom line. On average, a healthy employee costs approximately $3,830 per year in covered medical, sick day, short-term disability, and workers’ compensation claims, according to one study of medical claims data in the American Journal of Health Promotion. The cost associated with obese employees, on the other hand, is $8,067 — more than double that of a healthy worker.


Flip Morse is an avid cyclist, bicycling to work from Seattle’s Capitol Hill to the Nintendo campus in Redmond.

Cardiovascular disease, often exacerbated by poor diet and lack of exercise, is the number one cause of death in the United States, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Older employees are more susceptible to heart disease and other obesity-related illnesses. Cardiovascular disease does not discriminate based on gender — women are just as prone to it as men.

“It used to be that this was a man’s disease; now we are at equal risk,” said Cherie Skager, executive director of the Hope Heart Institute in Bellevue. “As (women) have moved up in the workforce, we’ve had more equality from a career standpoint. We also have more equality when it comes to cardiovascular disease, and that’s
a huge concern.”

Skager said up to 82 percent of heart disease cases are preventable with exercise and a healthy diet. “That is hugely based on our daily choices,” she said. “It’s one of those things that we need to start thinking about early because it is a slow, silent killer.”

Office tendencies typically don’t promote health — office workers sit for an average of five hours and 41 minutes each day, according to the British Psychological Society. But companies are beginning to understand that it’s important to buck that trend. Healthy employees not only cost employers less, but they typically are happier employees, too. Workers who maintain a healthy weight and blood pressure have more energy and stamina, making them more productive and less likely to be bogged down and moody. Additionally, a pre-work exercise regime releases endorphins in the body, which promote happiness and alertness throughout the workday.

Morse was a major player in Nintendo’s construction of a ventilated, temperature-controlled bike locker room.

Morse was a major player in Nintendo’s construction of a ventilated, temperature-controlled bike locker room.

This has proved true for Flip Morse, senior vice president of corporate resources at Nintendo of America. Morse bookends every workday with a 20-mile bicycle commute between his home in Capitol Hill and his office at Nintendo’s Redmond campus.

“When you get to work, your head is clear, you’re full of endorphins, and you’ve got lots of energy,” Morse said. “When you go home, you get to work off the stress of the day, and you’re relaxed, calm, and full of endorphins for the evening.”

A list of the benefits of exercise is unending. We all know we should be more active and eat healthier, but the problem lies in execution. Add in the typical six hours of sitting, plus a couple hours of driving to and from work, daily breakfast and dinner rituals, and a full eight hours of sleep each night, and there is not much time left for exercise.

One solution is to find time during the workday to squeeze in physical activity. Combined with healthy meal planning, that exercise during office hours can really impact health in a positive way. Companies are buying into this approach — multiple Eastside employers are making it easier than ever to get healthy between emails and board meetings.

Nintendo of America

You might expect Nintendo’s fitness culture to center on its Wii Fit balance board, but the company goes far beyond that to foster a healthy lifestyle for its employees. The 10-acre campus not only features a gym with blood pressure-monitoring stations and regular yoga and aerobics classes, but also boasts a soccer field, tennis court, basketball court, and volleyball court.

20160205_Precor_0049Morse said he appreciates all of Nintendo’s fitness incentives, but his favorite is a temperature-controlled bike locker system in the headquarters building. The lockers are ventilated to dry gear throughout the day, and there’s a bike-repair bench nearby, just in case.

“The bike locker is my baby,” Morse said. “If it’s raining, my gear is soaking wet; in the summer, it’s soaking wet from perspiration. … I thought if people were coming out of work at the end of the day and trying to get into wet gear, they’re not going to want to (bike to work). So we have to create an incentive for them to feel good about going home and being warm on that ride home.”

Exercise facilities are only part of the equation at Nintendo. The company recognizes that a balanced diet also is necessary for healthy living, so it encourages employees to eat fresh, healthy foods.

“We have some nutrition awareness and incentives,” Morse said. “In our cafeteria, we subsidize the healthier foods so that there is a financial incentive for our employees to eat healthily and stay away from high-fat, unhealthy foods.”

Morse isn’t the only executive at Nintendo that endeavors to stay fit despite a full schedule. He believes that leading by example is the best thing employers can do to motivate employees.

“Modeling — it sounds corny, but it really is true,” he said. “I think that if employees see the leaders of a company that are really into (fitness), it provides good modeling. We have a number of executives who are very active.”


Step into any gym and you likely will find an array of Precor treadmills, elliptical machines, or stationary bikes. Erica Tillinghast, global education manager at Precor and a four-time Boston Marathon runner, echoes Morse’s lead-by-example ethos in her varied exercise routines.

“It’s really important for me to be physical in our fitness space so that (employees) see that I am not only providing them with guidance about how to work out, but also doing it myself and living that life. So I make it a priority to work out in our space rather than work out after work just to have that visibility,” she said.

While this philosophy has worked well for Tillinghast, she believes a greater motivator lies within a group of employees.

“We find that accountability and camaraderie are the biggest drivers for success,” she said. “Having other people you work out with, having dedicated times of day that you put into your calendar that you can absolutely commit to and not schedule other things over it.”

As expected, Precor‘s five-story building, 270,000-square-foot Woodinville campus is well-equipped with three gyms packed with the latest in Precor’s exercise technology, which means employees don’t have to venture far from their desks to get in a quick workout.

“Sometimes you see people in their jeans doing a couple of pull-ups or walking on a treadmill; sometimes people are in there really sweating and getting a great workout in,” Tillinghast said. “One of the things we know about staying fit is that the closer proximity you have to fitness equipment or the opportunity to be fit, the easier it will be. You take away that need to go drive across town to get to a gym.”

City of Kirkland

Kirkland City Manager Kurt Triplett (right) engages other city employees on lunchtime walks.

Kirkland City Manager Kurt Triplett (right) engages other city employees on lunchtime walks.

Much like Precor, the City of Kirkland believes in thinking and moving during the workday. City Manager Kurt Triplett, for example, has an open invitation to all of the city’s 500 employees: Come take a walk with him during lunch break.

“My calendar is often quite full,” Triplett said. “I view the walk as walking office hours and let any Kirkland employee join me and discuss any topic they want. Briefings happen and decisions get made while we all get healthier.”

Whether employees walk with him or with each other, Triplett said walking meetings are beneficial. “Walking creates both calmness and focus,” he said. “Getting out of the office helps you see things from a different perspective and think more clearly. I also enjoy the fellowship of those who walk with me. We talk about Kirkland business, but we also talk about other things like families, careers and dreams. It brings you closer to those you walk with.”

The city boasts an array of waterfront walking trails and parks that provide a prime location for its employees to enjoy.

“We are really blessed to have really nice land to walk,” said Jim Lopez, the city’s director of human resources. “They can walk around the water at lunch. There’s a lot of ultimate Frisbee that goes on over at Heritage Park at lunch. We are blessed with the immediate resources to keep folks engaged in physical activity; we are very appreciative of that.”

On classic Pacific Northwest rainy days when it’s too soggy for a walk in the park, city employees who work on-site can make their way to the fitness center at City Hall, where an upgrade is projected to wrap up in September.

When the world is your gym, it’s hard to believe that fitness could be any easier, but the city goes a step further by providing free fitness coaching through its health-care provider.

“I think our differentiation is our off-site clinic,” Lopez said. “This (clinic) has a wellness coach as part of it. Nutrition, fitness, stress management, time management — those are all things you can talk to this health coach about.”

Lopez finds that competition between employees is an excellent motivator. The city sponsors a fitness competition it calls The Wellness Games, as well as an internal fitness club that gives employees prizes for their physical activity.

“We turn activity into a miles metric, and then we give them rewards,” Lopez said. “So we kind of convert any exercise into miles, and then it goes on a continuum where you can get small gifts like water bottles way up to time off from work. It’s a fun way of rewarding people to stay active on their off-work time if they play basketball on the weekend or ride their bike to work.”

Company culture

How do you know what fitness program is best for your company? Ask employees, Hope Heart’s Skager said.

“It’s so easy to do a quick survey of what interests employees,” Skager said. “It takes five minutes to ask — what kind of activities interest you? What sort of workplace environment would you like to see surrounding employee health?”

However, Skager cautions employers to be careful with the collected data sets. They should be used only as a primer for new health programs or committees.

“Employers have to understand that when they start gathering health data that there are laws surrounding that,” Skager said. “They have to be prepared to deal with that confidentiality, and they have to ask themselves what they are going to do with that data.”

The Hope Heart’s Business Take Heart program helps employers handle this sensitive information, ultimately building a new office wellness program at each worksite it visits. Trial programs are being held in Pierce County this year.

“The idea behind this is that we are doing awareness, education, and then also trying to ramp up wellness committees so that there is management and employee involvement,” said Brittany Krein, Hope Heart’s worksite wellness program manager. “We’ve also been doing pre- and post-surveys to find out what interests employees, what times of day they are reachable, what is the best way to communicate with them about worksite wellness, and then also some of the sites are doing biometric screenings.”

In the end, company culture defines what employers should do to improve workforce health, Krein said.

“You can spend a lot of money on worksite wellness, or you can spend nothing,” Krein said. “I think the most important thing is that you work within the culture of the organization and do something that is going to be meaningful to the organization. Otherwise, it’s not going to have the impact that you want.”

What to do if …

Minor tweaks to your daily routine can have a long-term impact on your health. Here are some tips from the experts at Hope Heart Institute in Bellevue on what you should do to avoid day-to-day foibles:

You wake up late for work and don’t have time for breakfast, so you hit the drive-thru on the way to work: 
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so consider starting your day with the healthiest menu option. Look for healthier options such as a fruit salad or a yogurt parfait over greasy, calorie-packed breakfast sandwiches. “You really want to look at what has protein and strike a balance between the carbs and the fats,” said Cherie Skager, executive director at Hope Heart. “That way you can find something that is going to keep you sustained until lunch so you are not heading to the vending machine and grabbing a Snickers.” If hitting the snooze button one too many times is becoming a morning ritual you can’t seem to break, consider stocking your desk with healthy snacks like a bag of nuts or fruits that will last a few days.

You made a healthy lunch the night before, but you left it at home: 
It would be so easy to walk to the nearest McDonald’s and pick up a Big Mac, but consider a jaunt to the closest grocery store instead. Hit up the salad bar, or purchase something you can assemble quickly in the office kitchen. “So many grocery stores have big salad bars,” Skager said. “It is going to be a little bit better than fast food because you can control portion size and you can control what you are putting in it.” Grab a chicken breast from the deli and build a salad around it, or opt for a hearty soup on rainy days.

Your coworkers keep bringing in unhealthy goodies for birthdays, holidays … and Tuesdays: 
You probably can venture into the breakroom on any given day and find some kind of sugar-laden treat. “It’s going to be more tempting if you are hungry,” Skager said. “You can still celebrate and honor an individual without fat and sugar. I’m a big believer in moderation, so if someone brings in a doughnut or a muffin — we know muffins today are huge in size — it is OK to get out the knife and have some of it. If you want a doughnut, have a doughnut, but don’t have one every time.”

You are just too busy to walk during lunch: 
If it is an option, stand. Standing desks are becoming more popular these days. “You may have heard — sitting is the new smoking,” Skager said. “We live in a culture where you can sit at your desk for a very long time because you have everything in front of you, but it’s not healthy to be that sedentary for that long.” If standing desks haven’t made it to your office, Skager suggests getting up at least once an hour to move around. Hold a walking meeting. Walk across the office and speak to a coworker face-to-face instead of shooting off an email. Pace while you take a conference call. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Any time you replace sitting with movement, you reduce the risk of heart disease.

You stuck to your diet in the office all day, but you have the urge to pig out as soon as you get home: 
“In an average day, an individual is faced with more than 200 food choices,” said Brittany Krein, worksite wellness program manager at Hope Heart. “Toward the end of the day, you get worn out, so having things set so you don’t have to make those choices is critical.” Sit down as a family during the weekend and plan your menu and shopping list for the coming week — bonus points if you cook the food ahead of time and freeze. That way, you’re less likely to throw a frozen pizza in the oven. Avoid adding empty-calorie junk foods to the shopping list. If you don’t buy them, you can’t eat them.

You have to go on a business trip for a few days and you don’t want to eat fast food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner: 
Planning ahead is the key to success. Research the area or talk to your hotel’s concierge to find the healthiest meal options around. Or book a room with a kitchenette. “That makes it a lot easier to create meals instead of eating out,” Krein said. “It’s also a cost savings for the organization to not have to pay for that individual to go out to eat.” If eating out can’t be avoided, take advantage of the hotel’s gym facilities. Hotel chain Westin recently launched a Move Well program with New Balance that provides guests with maps of local trails and sneaker rentals.

This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of “425 Business.”