'Wellness' revolution comes to Palo Alto | March 22, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - March 22, 2013

'Wellness' revolution comes to Palo Alto

City looks to motivate workers to adopt healthy habits

by Gennady Sheyner

Every Wednesday, just after work, Palo Alto City Manager James Keene and a group of employees gather in front of City Hall for a little stretching, some casual chitchat and a brisk run through the Stanford University campus.

Keene, a marathon runner, instituted the group event about a month ago. Last week, about a dozen workers from different corners of the City Hall bureaucracy turned out: planning, human resources and utilities. Though the run is breezy, casual and open to all, so far it is largely preaching to a choir of established runners. Most of the workers trailing Keene on the sunny afternoon look like they know their way around a marathon course, a weight bench and a winding trail.

City leaders hope this will soon change. Like other agencies around the state and across the nation, Palo Alto is now in the midst of designing a broad wellness program geared to provide incentives and opportunities for employees to pick up healthy habits. The City and County of San Francisco has had a citywide wellness program called "Shape Up San Francisco" since 2006. The program includes a walking challenge for employees in the spring, and representatives from all departments participate. In 2010, the city partnered with organizations such as Weight Watchers and UCSF on health initiatives that include weight loss, stress management and smoking-cessation programs. The city also offers workers biometric-screening events and classes on yoga and Zumba, according to a presentation offered by the city last November.

State departments are also eagerly pursuing wellness plans, particularly ones targeting preventable chronic conditions, which accounted for 22 percent of the state's health care spending in 2008, according to Ruth Holton-Hodson from the state Comptroller's Office. Even a 5 percent reduction in these conditions would save the state $18 million annually, she said at a recent Town Hall meeting on wellness programs.

In Palo Alto's case, the drive for wellness will do little to rein in health care costs, which are expected to rise by more than 7 percent annually in the coming years (see main bar). The CalPERS system, which administers the city's plan, aggregates health care costs among all agencies and does not provide individual cities with information about its employees. Even so, the city is plowing forth out of a belief that promoting wellness is a noble end with probable benefits. After its Feb. 4 discussion of health care, the City Council passed a motion that directs staff to "identify best wellness practices and health plan benefits that emphasize, teach and reward wellness."

"We plan to proceed with developing wellness programs for their own good and for the benefit of our employees regardless of whether or not we can capture direct cost savings through our health care providers, which we can't right now," Keene said.

Wellness programs would include the "whole gamut" of components promoting physical and mental health, Keene said in an interview with the Weekly. The program will be put together in collaboration with employees and will be completely voluntary.

"We want to have a healthy organization. We want to have a healthy community," Keene said. "In the same way we've been pushing on how we can be innovative as a city, because that's the culture, we believe in having a healthy organization."

The Palo Alto Police Department has had such a program since 2004. The voluntary program couples officers with Sequoia Hospital physicians who administer annual tests of fitness, blood pressure, strength and lipid profile; identify risk factors; prescribe exercises; and hold counseling sessions. Officers who participate are allowed to take one hour of on-duty time a day for exercise.

It appears to be working. In 2003, before the program took effect, participating officers used 897 hours of sick leave in the first and second quarters of the year, according to a city report. The number dropped to 794 hours in the first two quarters of 2004, when the program was first instituted, and to 518 hours in 2006.

"Its basically preventive maintenance, but instead of a car, it's someone's body," Police Chief Dennis Burns said in a recent interview. "We try to help people be productive and enjoy their experience here, working for the city. We want them to not only stay here, but we want them to be healthy and illness-free."

Palo Alto's Chief People Officer Kathryn Shen said the city has just started working with the League of Cities, an association of city officials, on setting up a broader program for the entire workforce. It has recently surveyed employees on wellness and hosted its first meeting on the subject last week.

Shen, who worked for Kaiser before joining the city, said one major goal is to help people afflicted with obesity, diabetes and other chronic conditions. And while other agencies have mandatory programs and fines for unhealthy habits such as smoking, Palo Alto's would aim to teach, not to punish, Shen said.

"It's more about getting educated about chronic illnesses and how you can live a lifestyle that's more healthy," Shen said.

While exploring the broader program, staff is also taking a softer approach to promoting healthier habits. Shen leads a walking group every Wednesday at the same time that Keene leads his running group. Newly hired Recreation Manager Lacee Korsten is preparing to launch Tuesday afternoon aerobics classes for employees at Lucie Stern Community Center. And Catherine Elvert, a Utilities Department accounts representative who took part in last week's City Hall run, is organizing a 5K run in the Baylands on April 27 to promote water conservation. The primary goal is to raise awareness about water resources. But city officials see promoting running as a good secondary goal.

"It's not an ice-cream social," Elvert said. "We're getting out to enjoy the outdoors, do something healthy and do some walking and running with family and friends."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.


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