Helping employees stay healthy
By Anne Fisher

(FORTUNE Magazine) – EVERYBODY'S AWARE of the skyrocketing cost of health care in the U.S. and of how worried employers are about their share of the tab. Many of us have seen the fallout close to home, in the form of skimpier health benefits and higher deductibles and copayments. But corporate America is finally taking constructive action. About 240 big companies (which together provide health insurance for more than 50 million Americans) have banded together to create a nonprofit organization called the National Business Group on Health. It advises large employers on health-care and benefits issues and has started bestowing a new honor--the Best Employers for Healthy Lifestyles award--on companies that are investing in making their workers healthier.

Some of the winning tactics include installing walking routes and hiking paths around workplaces and stocking cafeterias and vending machines with more fruit and other foods containing less fat and salt. NBGH hopes that highlighting such best practices will encourge other employers to copy them. Additional praised tactics:

•Employees of Aetna can earn financial incentives of up to $345 a year for participating in weight-management and fitness courses.

•Union Pacific Railroad has an online system called HealthTrack that can create a customized health plan for each of its 48,000 employees.

•GE Energy's Health by Numbers program is available in seven languages at all GE Energy locations worldwide. Based on a formula of 0-5-10-25--zero tobacco use, five daily servings of fruits and vegetables, 10,000 steps (or 30 minutes of moderate exercise) daily, and striving to maintain a body mass index of less than 25--the program includes motivational tools and personal coaching.

While the NBGH awards focus on fighting obesity, which is believed to cost employers some $13 billion annually, many experts estimate that stress causes even higher medical bills. Maybe NBGH should also give an award to employers who encourage workers to take their vacations and--an even bigger plus--leave them alone to relax when they do: A survey by staffing firm Hudson says that 34% of employees check in with the office so frequently while on vacation, they come back "either more stressed than, or just as stressed as, when they left." There's nothing healthy about that.