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Driving wellness

Think you have a hard time getting enough exercise? Try being strapped behind the wheel all day.

posted March 31, 2017

By Joce Johnson, SAIF content strategist; Photos by Kelly James

Al Bathke Salem-Keizer TransitAl Bathke knows well what a normal workday is like for a city bus driver. Before he became a trainer for Salem-Keizer Transit, he was a transit operator and spent nine hours a day ferrying riders from place to place. Aside from a three- to four-hour break in the middle of the day, Bathke spent his entire shift in the seat of a bus. While on routes, his only “exercise” was to occasionally assist a rider on and off the bus.

“Most transit operators are not in great physical shape,” Bathke says. “Exercise isn’t at the forefront of their minds.”

He estimates the average Salem-Keizer Transit driver got fewer than 5,000 steps per day—less than half the number recommended by the American Heart Association for a healthy lifestyle. But that was before Salem-Keizer Transit launched an engaging wellness program that got district employees on their feet.

Getting to the root of the problem

Michiel Majors joined Salem-Keizer Transit as the safety and loss control specialist in August 2015. That’s when wellness took on a new meaning for transit employees.

Using injury trend reports provided by SAIF Senior Safety Management Consultant Jacquie Strand, Majors identified what he believed to be the root cause of many of the district’s motor vehicle accidents and personal injuries: “The majority of our staff sat for the majority of their day,” he says.

As he continued his research, Majors discovered more troubling statistics: The number of employees on the district’s health insurance suffering from chronic diseases had doubled in one year, from 13.8 percent to 26.5 percent. That startling jump fell right in line with studies linking chronic disease with inactivity.

The number of employees on the district’s health insurance suffering from chronic diseases had doubled in one year, from 13.8 percent to 26.5 percent.

Salem-Keizer Transit had a wellness committee that was working on ways to get employees more active, but participation was low. How could the district attract a majority of its nearly 200 employees to join and get healthy? And how would they pay for it?

Counting steps and lowering costs

Majors decided to focus on increasing the number of steps employees get in a day. His own experience with a Fitbit activity tracker had proven that he wasn’t as active as he thought. As a result, he made some changes to his daily routine, like taking the stairs to his fifth-floor office, and lost 45 pounds over six months.

With online contests, message boards, and tracking, the Fitbit program suddenly seemed like the answer to the organization’s participation problem. The other problem—how to fund tracking devices for all participants—was answered with SAIF’s 2015 dividend announcement.

In the fall of 2015, SAIF declared a $120 million dividend to be shared among 47,000 policyholders, including Salem-Keizer Transit. The district had received a dividend check before, but the money had never been reinvested into employee health and safety.

Majors worked with the wellness committee and proposed spending $20,000 of their $52,000 dividend to fund the Fitbit Wellness initiative. By participating in the program, the district would save .8 percent on its health insurance premium, or about $29,000. This meant a cost savings of $9,000 in just the first year.

Salem-Keizer Transit purchased 120 Fitbits for employees willing to participate in the new wellness initiative.

There was a financial incentive for employees as well: If they wore the device for a year and tried to get at least 5,500 steps every day, participated in wellness challenges, and joined the online Fitbit group, they would get the device for free.

Majors' bosses considered it a no-brainer. “The report he put together was so convincing. There was not a single hole in it,” says Patricia Feeny, communications director for Salem-Keizer Transit. “There was no way as an executive team you could’ve said no.” 

By June 2016, the district had purchased 120 Fitbits and given them to every willing employee.

Stepping up to the challenge

Unlike office workers, many transit employees don’t have the option to get up and walk around during their work day. While the proposal sounded like it would get employees engaged, the committee was unsure how drivers would fare in the step requirements.

But, Feeny says, it was the transit operators who stepped up to the challenge. “They’re making it work. You’ll see some of them walking around their buses or they’ll take advantage of their (break) times.”

The wellness committee had hoped for a 35 percent participation rate. Right off the bat, 55 percent of employees signed up for a Fitbit , and it wasn’t just transit operators. The CEO, office staff, directors, and managers also got on board.

The program has helped establish a greater sense of camaraderie and friendly competition among staff, some of whom never had a reason to interact before. Employees can choose to make their activity, eating habits, and sleep patterns visible online to the rest of the organization. It’s a way to check out the competition—and cheer each other on.

Incentives also boost participation. Step challenge winners take home everything from water bottles to gift certificates for athletic shoes.

There are many ways to boost your step count throughout the workday, including walking meetings.Find more creative ways to squeeze activity into your work day.

Reaping the rewards

Less than a year into the program, there isn’t a lot of data to show the total impact it has made on the organization. However, SAIF reports indicate a drop in injury claims, as well as overall costs and time-loss days.

In 2013, Salem-Keizer Transit paid $31,388 in losses and had 11 injury claims. Comparatively, in 2016 the company paid $2,011 in losses and had seven claims . Specifically, there has been a decline in soft tissue injuries.

“Michiel has found a way to insert wellness in a way that encourages most employees to get on board and participate voluntarily,” says Strand, SAIF’s safety consultant. “He’s created a lot of trust with his employees.”

One transit operator lost 30 pounds and was motivated to get a personal trainer. Others have purchased gym memberships.

But Bathke’s progress perhaps tells the story best. At age 60, after two back surgeries and multiple other operations, he leads the organization with his step count. His goal is 20,000 steps a day, and it’s rare for him not to accomplish it. He’s also led a series of step challenges online and has set a personal record of 62,000 steps in one day.

Since starting the program, Bathke has shed 18 pounds and feels healthier. Stories like his have inspired others. More than half of the district’s employees are tracking their activity and engaging online.

Bathke’s advice for those who haven’t yet taken the steps to improve their health: “The only one who benefits from it is you, and the only one hurting if you don’t do it is you,” he says. “Do it for your own benefit.”

Learn more about the benefits—and risks—of an employee wellness program.