Sprinting Toward Workplace Wellness

Dec 6, 2013, 2:25 PM, Posted by Ari Kramer

Lots of things can turn a person into a health and fitness nut. For many, it might be influence from friends, or a life episode that demonstrates the pitfalls of focusing too little on health.

For Graciela Ruiz, it was just a matter of landing a job at the right place.

When Ruiz started working at Wakefern Food Corp., the merchandizing and distribution arm for ShopRite and PriceRite stores, she was eating lots of processed foods, and exercise figured very little into her routine. She particularly hated running. “I wouldn’t run unless someone was chasing me,” she says.

One day, the organizer of Wakefern’s run/walk club signed her up for the Jersey Shore Relay Marathon. He gave her the race’s shortest leg, a 5K, and she trained hard and did better than expected. Fast forward five years, and Graciela is now highly active in the club and numerous other wellness programs at the company. She says she will “run for two hours and be happy about it,” and has changed her eating habits to a point where “I’ll eat vegetables all day long.”

“I feel better at work,” says the native New Jerseyan, who works as a buyer in Wakefern’s perishables division in Elizabeth. “I’m happier. I’m healthier. I’m doing so many more things.”

Across the nation, companies of all types and sizes are investing more in wellness as a strategy to improve employee health and productivity, and their bottom line. In the last two years, the number of mid-sized companies offering incentives to employees for taking steps to become healthier rose 73 percent, according to a survey by the National Business Group on Health and Fidelity Investments.  

In addition to the savings that promoting health in the workplace can bring to employers’ health care expenses, among many companies, the wellness trend is also being driven by a desire to align with the health-oriented mind-set that is increasingly prevalent in employees’ homes and communities.

“You do it because it makes sense to do,” says John Sarno, president of the Employers Association of New Jersey, which provides resources and assistance on workplace wellness for small employers. “It’s all about showing you care. It goes with the times.” 

At Wakefern, the wellness program includes yoga, Pilates, kickboxing, and other fitness classes, medical screenings, and programs on nutrition and healthier living. Retail training specialist Krystina DeLuca says participation has been growing steadily. The run/walk club has increased from 10 to more than 300 members, while really popular classes such as Zumba, draw up to 30 people. This year, the addition of a fitness “boot camp” helped boost participation among male employees in the company’s wellness efforts by 66 percent.

Since it launched its wellness program five years ago, DeLuca says the growth of Wakefern’s health care costs have slowed to a point where it saw no increase this year. But perhaps even more important, the activities are prompting employees to get more connected and engaged, critical ingredients in job satisfaction and an overall healthy workplace. 

“We’re confident that our health and wellness efforts are paying off,” she says.

For Graciela, the payoff has been clear—and she has her employer to thank.

“They’re very supportive of health and wellness,” she says. “That’s why I’m very passionate about it.”