Healthy employees are happy employees, and those workers are more productive and provide better customer service.

That is the hope of many small banks that offer employees expansive — and often creative — health and wellness programs. The benefits, which can range from providing discounted or free gym memberships to company-wide fitness competitions, allow banks to engage with employees and increase retention while keeping health care costs down.

"It makes perfectly good sense" to offer such programs, says Karen Hartnett, a principal at KJH Consulting, a human resources consulting firm. "A lot of organizations are taking advantage of wellness programs. There are layers of benefits to the company and to the employees."

Research shows that, for each buck spent on wellness programs, companies get a $3.46 return on investment, says Bruce Elliott, manager of compensation and benefits at the Society for Human Resource Management.

Due to their size, many community banks are self-insured, meaning the bank pays for health care costs rather than an insurance company. Those banks can save a significant amount by reducing the likelihood of serious illnesses and encouraging employees to become more active, Elliott says. Regardless, any company can help keep health care benefits costs down by lowering obesity rates and encouraging employees to quit smoking, Hartnett says.

Bank of Ann Arbor in Michigan started a wellness program about five years ago to help control rising health care costs, says Tim Marshall, president and chief executive of the $882 million-asset bank and its parent, Arbor Bancorp. The bank expects to spend $25,000 to $30,000 next year on its wellness program and about $1.3 million on health care. Those numbers are roughly flat from this year, he says. The bank is self-insured.

Almost all of the bank's almost 170 employees participate in the wellness program, Marshall says. Employees can earn monthly discounts of up to $80 off their health insurance premiums. To do so, they must participate in a program that includes taking baseline measurements of blood pressure and cholesterol, going through health counseling and taking nutritional, exercise and stress management courses.

"If your company is not participating in some kind of wellness program, then you are just giving into whatever the annual increases are for health insurance," Marshall says. "We have created something that is efficient and manageable."

The employer's benefits are more than monetary, industry experts say. Wellness programs and other employee-centric benefits help attract and retain talent, says Alan Kaplan, chief executive of executive search firm Kaplan & Associates. Healthier employees are less likely to call in sick and are more productive, and wellness programs can make employees feel more engaged at work.

"If a company demonstrates that it is not doing this just to cut costs, but because it cares, then employees will respond in kind," Elliott says. "You're trying to change behaviors. You plant the idea by offering a menu of activities and services."

Banks can be creative in forming wellness programs because many inexpensive options are available, industry experts say. Change can be as simple as substituting healthier snacks for candy in a vending machine, Elliott says.

Examples of wellness programs at banks include providing free flu shots and annual biometric screenings. Others have offered healthy cooking demonstrations and educational seminars. Another bank provides an online health coach.

Zions Bank in Salt Lake City takes a holistic approach to wellness; it encourages employees to focus on emotional, intellectual and social wellbeing and not just their physical health. Earlier this year, about two-thirds of its roughly 2,360 employees participated in an eight-week March Madness style wellness campaign. Employees formed teams and competed against each other to see who could log the most minutes engaging in wellness activities. Collectively, the bank recorded 5.6 million minutes.

"We know that teamwork is critical to the success of the bank and teamwork is directly tied to the wellness of our employees," says George Myers, Zions' director of human resources. "You can see it in any team. If you play in an orchestra and the whole violin section gets the flu, they won't perform as well, so the entire orchestra suffers."

The bank, an $18.2 billion-asset unit of Zions Bancorp. (ZION), also focuses on educating employees so they make better lifestyle choices, Myers says. The bank hosts expos focused on health-related topics and brings in health experts to check employees' vitals.

Those efforts are paying off, Myers says. Health care costs for employees and at the bank, which is self-insured, have risen by about 2% in the last few years and will remain flat this year, he says.

First Green Bank in Mount Doral, Fla., has offered wellness benefits since it opened in 2009, says Kenneth LaRoe, the $235 million-asset bank's CEO and a self-described "health nut." The bank provides a long list of wellness benefits, including a free gym and personal trainer at its headquarters. For those who work at other locations, the bank pays for gym memberships. Employees also receive a $500 annual fitness allowance that they can use to pay for things like Weight Watchers dues or entry fees for races. The bank will also give workers $50 a month for walking or biking to work.

"I just know the value of being healthy," LaRoe says. "I know how much more productive I am and how much better I feel. I want my employees to have that same benefit."

Setting up programs that meet employees' needs takes time and effort, industry experts say. It usually takes three to five years for a company to reap the benefits of wellness initiatives, so it is important to be patient and not expect immediate results, Elliott says.

Banks must determine the interests of their employees and cater their program to fit those needs, Hartnett says. This can be done through something as simple as taking a survey, Elliott says. It is also important to develop the program through a collaborative effort, soliciting opinions from employees throughout the company, says David Rose, CEO of C-Level Marketing & Sales Consulting.

Insurance carriers are usually willing to help design wellness programs since it is in their interest to keep medical costs down, industry experts say. Insurers often provide funding or other resources for wellness effort.

Health and wellness programs "are the wave of the future," Hartnett says. "You create a culture of caring about your employees' well-being. You are communicating that, not only are you a worker to me, but also a person that I want to be productive and happy."

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