NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Wellness programs at most companies have hit a wall, and even fewer employees are getting out of their cubicles to exercise and be active during the work day. That's why many work places are upping the ante to help their bottom-line and their employees' waistlines.

Employees have long rebelled against current wellness programs despite the fact that the majority of companies have them. Companies are catching on slowly, and many are now nudging their employers to be healthier by setting up offices with more natural light, encouraging more face-to-face communication and subconsciously encouraging people to take the stairs instead by placing them in central areas. Other companies have added more healthy options at their cafeteria while others are adopting the usage of sit/stand desks to have more people stand throughout the workday.

The Cost of Benefits 

Companies want more employees to be active and engaged and to take fewer sick days, since it is more effective to prevent than treat illness. Over one-third of U.S. adults are now obese, which results in estimated annual medical costs of more than $147 billion, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Many wellness programs were designed passively in the past -- giving employees discounts for memberships at local gyms instead of encouraging workers to engage in activity at the workplace. One Harvard research study revealed that medical costs are reduced by $3.27 for every dollar spent on wellness programs, and absentee day costs fall by about $2.73 for every dollar spent. Other studies have found conflicting evidence. A Rand study determined that wellness programs have a minimal impact on healthcare costs and estimates that a new wellness program takes an average of five years to earn back even the initial investment.

Taking the Burden Off Workers' Shoulders

Employers need to stop putting all the responsibility on workers and instead design the workplace in a way that actually promotes movement and activity, which is called active design, said Jonathan Webb, vice president of business markets for KI, a Green Bay, Wis. furniture manufacturer.

“There needs to be a cultural shift toward more wellness, since the workplace is such an incubator for sedentary behavior,” he said. “If they build walking paths and stairs, employees will use them.”

Serving as role models is also an impetus for employees to exercise. KI encourages employees to exercise during the work day at their onsite facility. Even the CEO and senior staff use it regularly during the day.

“If the workers see that, then the change in behavior can take place,” Webb said. “The behavior needs to be adopted by management and has to be purposeful.”

In the past five years, KI, which is owned by the employees and also “grades” them on their health, the company has only had one insurance premium increase.

“Those are things that are measurable,” he said. “We have saved thousands of dollars on premiums and helped to make our employees healthier and more successful."

"Sitting Is the New Smoking" 

Sitting in a cubicle for eight or more hours a day is detrimental to the health of employees. Companies are attempting to break the mold and are now pushing employees to be less sedentary since “sitting is the new smoking,” said Cathy Kenworthy, CEO of Interactive Health, a Schaumburg, Ill. provider of wellness and health management solutions. An independent study of the programs designed by Interactive Health for other companies during the past 20 years showed that employees do respond with 26% of smokers who quit smoking, 64% of participants with elevated glucose who reduced their glucose levels and 82% of participants with elevated blood pressure improve their blood pressure.

“As an employer, making it easy to make small changes and develop new habits can be enormously impactful,” she said. “We have had a putting challenge on the office building putting green, asked people to take the stairs to get there, doing as many jumping jacks as the Chicago Bears scored points in their game the day before and even dance competitions.”

Building a collaborative environment for employees with more open seating inspires additional “lively discussions,” said Laura Yip, co-founder and chief people officer who manages the company's talent management and benefits programs at Storm8, the Redwood City, Calif. mobile social game network and developer. The company has a wide range of ergonomic set-up options available for employees, including standing desks, ergonomic chairs and exercise balls.

“Healthier employees are happier employee and therefore more productive, so we think corporate wellness programs are a great idea,” Yip said. “We also have a free gym that employees can access, as well as sports leagues they can participate in, including softball, table tennis and soccer.”

The company is also encouraging employees to eat healthier. Storm8 provides catered lunches and dinners; too boot, it provides an unlimited snack bar but offers healthy options. The company's second annual health and wellness fair featured a juice bar, massage chairs, yoga classes and representatives from health organizations.

Hungry Howie’s Pizza, a national pizza franchise with corporate offices in Detroit, offers complimentary personal training classes, monthly 45-minute in office chair massages and adjusted work schedules to prod employees into more active lifestyles. Half of the 86 employees are participating in the program, and several have quit smoking.

Upping the Ante to Avoid Heavy Consequences

A recent survey by EMPLOYERS, a Reno, Nev. workers’ compensation insurance carrier, found that more than 75% of small businesses don’t provide non-traditional seating options such as stand-up desks, treadmill desks or balance balls to employees. Half of them don’t provide monitor stands to employees who work primarily on computers.

That could come at a huge cost.

“By 2030, 42% of Americans could be obese, according to a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine,” said David Quezada, vice president of loss control with EMPLOYERS. “This is causing us to think more about how we redesign the workspace.”

American workers rarely take breaks from their job now. The study also found that barely more than half of small business employees who primarily work on computers are encouraged to take routine breaks to rest their eyes, but not doing so can lead to eye strain or other injuries, he said.

EMPLOYERS encouraged its own employees to be more active by introducing walking meetings and utilizing the stairs versus the elevators, said Quezada.

--Written by Ellen Chang for MainStreet