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City of Riverside Wellness Program Decreases Sick Time and Improves Employee Health and Morale

Case Story

Community: Riverside
Population: 303,871


In the face of an economic downturn and rising health insurance costs, The City of Riverside implemented a wellness program for its 2,400 employees. The program provides educational resources, fitness events, health fairs, and wellness incentives.  It has had wide employee participation and is adding elements yearly. The program has decreased employee sick time, improved the health of employees, built positive relationships within the community, promoted positive employee/employer relationships, and reduced the rate of the city life insurance plan.

Healthy Neighborhoods Connection

Employers can reduce the burden of healthcare costs by supporting employees in their efforts to combat obesity and overweight—the primary contributors to the preventable diseases that account for more than 75% of health care expenditures.

There are many ways local agencies can lead the way. Some ideas include: work with insurance/healthcare provider to assess agency health costs, develop a wellness philosophy, and provide education, resources and incentives to promote healthy living.

Program Highlights

  • Decreased sick time and reported increase in productivity
  • No-budget program that relies on staff volunteerism and agency and community outreach
  • Annual events, weekly workshops, incentive programs, education website, team building and health competitions help employees improve health and lose weight.  470  employees have lost over 3,200 lbs. in two years
  • The City of Riverside has won awards for their Wellness Program, including the American Heart Association 2012 Innovative Workplace Award

Lessons Learned

  • Starting small, gaining participants, and building the program incrementally each year has allowed the City of Riverside to make gains every year, maintain the program without a dedicated budget and keep a positive outlook on the progress they have made.
  • Employees responded positively to wellness resources and incentives even though monetary raises and other benefits were scarce due to economic downturn.
  • Getting frequent employee feedback about the program has helped guide the direction it has taken.

Resources to Learn More

Riverside Human Resources: Health and Wellness

The Rest of the Story…

When faced with rising health care costs and data that pointed to lifestyle causes for many employee health costs, the Human Resources Department of the City of Riverside saw a clear connection between employee health and wellness practices. Specific issues identified were obesity, heart disease, childhood obesity, and allergies. In 2009, they enacted a wellness program with the goals of decreasing health insurance premiums, increasing employee attendance and productivity, and improving employee morale, personal success and job satisfaction. The program helps employees achieve a better work-life balance by offering resources and health-oriented activities in four areas of wellness: physical, emotional, financial and career.

The wellness program is administered by existing Human Resources (HR) staff using existing budget resources.  The HR staff work as a team to develop programs and build relations using designated “Wellness Ambassadors” within the agency and “Wellness Partners” in the community. Wellness Ambassadors serve as liaisons between other City departments and the HR wellness staff. Wellness Partners are businesses or individuals in the community who donate materials for wellness fairs and other events, provide incentives such as raffle ticket prizes and give discounts on their products or services. In turn, local businesses gain access and promotion to city employees through their participation in Wellness program events. The program has received a total of $42,780 in donated funds since 2009. 

Wellness program resources and activities fall into the four categories of wellness (physical, emotional, financial, and career) identified by program staff as key to achieving a healthy lifestyle and work-life balance. Specific program features include: 

  • Comprehensive wellness website with educational resources and a statement of the City of Riverside’s Wellness Philosophy
  • Annual Get Fit Challenge: A weight loss competition and annual January event that announces competition winners
  • Annual Wellness Fair: Provides products and services from local businesses, provides health demos and screening, promotes novel exercise activities like Zumba dance and Sumo wrestling
  • Weekly wellness workshops at various employee worksites: since 2009 there have been 57 health workshops
  • On-site health assessments, scans or screenings
  • Coordinated events with charities to raise funds while promoting wellness

Participation in the Wellness Program has increased each year. Employee participation in the Get Fit Challenge has resulted in more than 3,200 lbs. lost by 470 city employees in 2011 and 2012. About 10% of the employees participated in free health screenings in 2011 and 2012. Average sick leave per employee decreased and netted a total of 350 fewer employee sick days in 2011 compared to 2008.  The City also received a $300,000 refund from their life insurance policy because of under-utilization of the plan, attributed to a healthier workforce. 

The City’s Human Resource Board reported that organizational morale was at an optimal level and credited the Wellness Program. The Human Resources Director reports that union negotiations have gone really well since the inception of the program. She notes that at a time when you can’ t give much in terms of monetary rewards, the program shows employees that their employer cares about their well-being and gives them tools to improve their lives.

The HR Director also reports that local businesses have reported positive economic development opportunities, such as increased business, as a result of the city’s promotional efforts through wellness program events and incentives.

Applicability to Other Communities

Employee health, organizational culture and worker productivity are related. As local agencies look for ways to retain employees, reduce operation costs and improve productivity, measures taken to improve health can go a long way towards achieving those goals. Programs can be implemented and results achieved by using existing resources creatively. By engaging employee volunteers and reaching out to the community, Riverside was able to use an inclusive, team approach to improve employee health and change their organizational culture.

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