In August, 100 co-workers at a large St. Petersburg employer made the same resolution millions of Americans are declaring this week: They pledged to lose weight.
After 14 weeks, the group lost more than 1,200 pounds. Their employer — which supported the team with education sessions, discounted fitness memberships and cash prizes — was so pleased that this week it launched another weight-loss challenge.
Employer-sponsored wellness programs have become commonplace as businesses look to contain insurance costs. But this challenge came with a twist: Its participants all work for an employer dedicated to health, St. Petersburg General Hospital.
Whether or not you subscribe to the notion that health care workers should be role models when it comes to health, it's clear that they face the same challenges as the rest of us — and perhaps more, given the unique stresses of many health jobs.
St. Petersburg General got going on its program after parent company, Nashville-based HCA, challenged officials to improve employee wellness at all of its more than 160 hospitals nationwide.
"There's no doubt, when your staff is healthy, you lower (health insurance) premiums," said St. Petersburg General's vice president of human resources Guy Samuel, who dropped 31 pounds, two suit sizes and his blood pressure in the challenge that ended in November.
"I'm going back for another 20 in this next challenge," said Samuel, 51, who plans to achieve his goal by training for a marathon in April.
It's a trend that other local hospitals also are embracing.
BayCare Health System, which operates 10 hospitals in the area including Clearwater's Morton Plant, Mease Countryside and St. Joseph's in Tampa, has launched its third 12-week employee weight-loss competition called the Ultimate Loser, in which the winning man and woman each will receive $3,000.
Tampa General Hospital's wellness program is focusing not on weight loss but on healthy behaviors, such as eating breakfast. Participants who stick with the plan and keep a daily journal will be entered in a drawing for cash prizes.
"The thought of getting on a scale turns so many people off," said TGH wellness educator Shelly Scamardo. "Besides, there are plenty of unhealthy thin people."
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Health care, especially patient care, can be physically demanding and involve long hours, changing shifts, life-and-death decisions and emotional extremes. And that's just at work.
"It's a stressful profession, and just because you're in health care it doesn't mean you automatically take care of yourself or know how to take care of yourself," said JoAnn Shea, director of employee health services at Tampa General.
Elizabeth Hood, 40, a St. Petersburg General labor and delivery nurse, said she kept adding extra weight with each of her own pregnancies. Last fall, she tipped the scales at 157 pounds, too much for her 5-foot-3 frame. The competition gave her incentive to slim down — like Samuel, she lost 31 pounds, but that loss represented 20 percent of her body weight, a higher percentage weight loss than anyone else.
"The thing is, as nurses, you know what you're supposed to do, how to eat and exercise, but between work and family it's hard to also fit in healthy habits," said Hood, who puts in 12-hour night shifts.
A smattering of studies have documented weight problems in doctors, nurses and other health workers. One 2008 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners found that more than half of the nearly 5,000 nurses surveyed were overweight or obese. Most said they lacked motivation to make lifestyle changes.
"The irony of health care is that hospitals are just starting to realize the benefits of keeping employees healthy," Shea said. "We talk to each other and know that we are all finally waking up to this. Hospitals are finally promoting wellness with their employees."
Tampa General has hired two full-time wellness educators, including Scamardo, who said that for every $1 spent on employee wellness, companies can expect to save $3 in health care costs after three years.
Karrie Grassia, a fitness center coordinator who leads BayCare's Ultimate Loser program, said getting health care workers healthy — whether it's helping them lose weight or stop smoking — makes sense because they are often seen as role models.
"We're setting a huge example for the community," said Grassia. "We should be held to a higher standard."
But not everyone agrees.
Tampa General's Shea said it's unfair to expect a health care worker to be a model of good health. Still, she said, if employers can give workers the tools for better health, the benefits reach beyond cost savings.
"You have employees who are happier and feel better about themselves," and that makes them better at their jobs, she said.
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But wellness programs can't save money unless employees use them, so incentives are usually offered — from water bottles to cash awards such as HCA's $500 in credits to a health reimbursement account when workers get health screenings and follow-up.
BayCare will find out in April, when its first competition ends, how well a big cash prize works at promoting better employee health.
Hospitals may also learn something about incentives from other employers. For instance, the American Heart Association encourages healthy habits such as walking by giving participants extra time off.
"We used to give employees an option of receiving a prize or time off. Everyone wanted time off. So we dropped the prizes," said Marcia Olsen, senior vice president of human resources.
After 10 years, the heart association boasts 63 percent participation in its program.
Contact Irene Maher at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect the following: BayCare Health System has launched its third employee weight-loss competition. A Jan. 6 article stated otherwise.