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Firms offer the latest in flexible benefits

Wed., June 14, 2006, midnight

NEW YORK — Jennifer Kciuk has lost nearly 35 pounds this year, despite a job that keeps her at her desk or in meetings most of the day. She credits much of her new, slimmer and healthier physique to her employer, which subsidized her use of an on-premises gym and sponsored Weight Watchers meetings at the office.

“If Weight Watchers wasn’t here at the office, I would have never joined. I would not have had the time. Same with the gym … I like to go there at lunch, and there isn’t another one really close by,” says the 29-year-old mechanical engineer in Rochester, N.Y.

Even as companies reduce benefits and shift expenses to employees amid escalating health care costs, employers are increasingly finding other ways to improve the health of their employees. These approaches include workplace gyms and nutrition programs or subsidies that reward employees who work out regularly or want to lose weight or quit smoking.

“It’s not altruistic at all. They want to cut health care costs. Every dollar they save through prevention is a dollar they will save through their own health care costs,” says Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and co-author of “Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management.”

“The smoking-cessation programs, gymnasiums, Weight Watchers, the health improvement things — it is all an attempt to get a healthier work force which is also a more productive work force,” he contends.

Exercising or counting calories at work may be convenient and a good deal, but there are a few things to consider before joining up.

Remember who is paying the bills.

Kciuk’s employer, Xerox Corp., really wants its employees to take care of themselves. In addition to gym memberships and Weight Watchers, Xerox employees can also earn an annual $200 credit toward their health insurance premiums if they take a yearly online health risk assessment.

Larry Becker, benefits director for the Stamford, Conn.-based company, says employees frequently ask him about confidentiality in the programs.

He says Xerox gets a list of employees who take the health care assessment so that the $200 credits can be issued, but does not see or collect data on how an individual employee responds. Xerox does look at all the data collected in aggregate, however, to assess how well its health care programs are working.

“It’s all totally voluntary,” Becker says. “Nobody watches and writes down a list of who or what people are doing. You are doing your own thing.”

Hopefully, that will be the case with your employer, too. But it never hurts to ask, and make sure you understand who will have access to your information.

Keep it to yourself.

As tempting as it might be to tell everyone in the office about your colleague’s Weight Watchers confession that he binges on Krispy Kremes or that funny noise he made doing “downward dog” in yoga class at the office gym, don’t.

Even if there is no official discussion of confidentiality at a meeting, loose lips will make you look petty and unprofessional — and no one will trust you with any work-related secrets.

The good news is that should you attend a weight-loss or any other self-improvement program, chances are the other participants will be sympathetic to you.

“In essence we all have a weight problem, we have a common bond, so we don’t make fun of each other or judge each other because we’re in the same boat,” Kciuk says.

In the office gym, you’re still at work.

Just because you’re working out doesn’t mean you should let it all hang out.

When you exercise at the office, you need to make sure your workout attire is clean, modest and inoffensive.

That means no ripped T-shirts, smelly socks or clothes with inappropriate political, sexual or other commentary on them.

Don’t hog the equipment and don’t talk shop. You never know who is going to get on the treadmill next to you or who can hear you.


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