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Employers coaxing workers on wellness

A friend of mine is overweight, probably about 100 pounds more than what would be considered healthy. She works long hours, eats when she is stressed and says she has no time to exercise.

Her employer is much less cavalier than she about the situation. After a health assessment showing she's at risk for diabetes, she has been "encouraged" to participate in a weight-loss program and forced to pay a higher insurance premium. "I work hard. Should I really have to pay more than my slack co-worker because I'm overweight?" she asked me.

A study released last week by Willis North America's Human Capital Practice found that the wellness movement is evolving and encountering new challenges. About 60 percent of the companies surveyed have wellness programs, an increase of 13 percent from 2010. And the majority with programs currently in place are looking to invest and expand.

But Willis found employers still struggle with how to get employees and managers to participate and stay engaged. For employers, coaxing participation is tricky. Wellness programs can spark culture change and boost morale or break down trust and cause resentment.

One Florida company has found a strategy to prevent employee pushback. DHL Express USA, the express shipper, began its wellness program, GoHealth, in January. It's employee-driven, supported by management.

For example, you won't catch DHL Express CEO Ian Clough using the elevator to and from his fourth-floor offices in Plantation. There's a "bounty" on Clough's head should he consider skipping the stairs. And Clough now carries out most of his management meetings while walking around the lake outside.

The company's wellness efforts are coordinated by a central champion outside of top management, "an operations guy." Each office has a volunteer that brainstorms programs, then he or she logs all activities on a website to share and generate ideas for others.

"The biggest value has been around employee engagement," Clough says. "They've been able to come up with imaginative solutions for becoming healthier, and it's all coming from the front line."