Hot-tempered types attend a class called "How to Keep Your Cool." Pack-a-day smokers are channeled into a cigarette cessation program. Sedentary desk jockeys work out in the Pentagon's basement gym.
These are the latest U.S. Army manuevers geared to boosting employe health and productivity while cutting medical costs and absenteeism. Like increasing numbers of American employers, Uncle Sam has launched a worksite wellness program. But the Army's program is unique in both its size and approach. Some 6,000 military and civilian personnel will cycle through the $2.5 million Army Staff (ARSTAF) Corporate Fitness Program over the next three years at the Pentagon, making it one of the largest efforts ever undertaken to promote health.
"Our main aim of the corporate physical fitness program here is to improve the productivity of people," says Gen. Arthur E. Brown Jr., Army staff director. "But in an important way I think that it also shows military members of a team that someone is concerned about them."
Unlike some worksite wellness plans that set up a program and wait for participants, the Army plan is actively seeking out those who need ARSTAF most. "A lot of programs in industry say to employes, 'Here is this nice facility, why don't you come in and use it?' " says Col. Julius Bedynek Jr., a physician who heads the Army Surgeon General's Task Force on Physical Fitness. Yet often, Bedynek says, the people who really need it don't participate. "We're just trying to reverse that," he says.
The initial orientation meeting about ARSTAF is compulsory, but all other participation is voluntary. And, so far, the approach seems to be working. Since the project began in January, some 200 people a month have been queuing up to have blood drawn, electrocardiograms done and exercise tests ordered. All participants also answer a computer-graded health risk appraisal questionnaire that pinpoints areas where they could improve their health. Based on the results of this confidential questionnaire, ARSTAF participants are directed to courses that are appropriate for them.
"Those who fail a primary screening will go on to the secondary screening, which involves an exercise tolerance test," says Capt. Jeanne Picariello, coordinator of the ARSTAF Fitness Program.
Part of ARSTAF's appeal may stem from its willingness to tackle courses such as stress management and relaxation training. The Army has hired psychologist Sharlene Weiss to teach these courses and others, including "Coping and Communication," "Constructive Problem Solving," "Alternative to Anger" and even "Type A Behavior and Your Heart."
Perhaps the newest and most striking message to Army personnel is this: Anger is out. More effective communication is in, even if that means helping to reeducate demanding Type A personalities into less-stressed people.
ARSTAF takes a similarly enlightened approach to tailoring exercise to individuals. "The whole idea," says Bedynek "is to get a program that people can maintain."
As important as the fitness goal is the Army's attempt to see if wellness can pay off -- not just with health dividends, but also by cutting the cost of medical care.
Both the Army and the Office of Personnel Managment think it will. They base their conclusion on a Michigan study by Dr. Halle Faust, a physician and public health specialist, that found that a worksite wellness program could increase job productivity while decreasing costs.
"Productivity went up over 10 percent in the first year of Faust's study," says Bedynek. Absenteeism dropped by more than 20 percent, while the use of health services "didn't change very much." Prescription drug use also went down "significantly over the two year study," Bedynek says. "But nothing else changed very much."
Also increased: life span, by about one year -- just enough to raise pension costs. "But when you added this all up, the benefits still paid off," Bedynek says, "because of the increased productivity."
Compared with the billions spent on military hardware, the corporate fitness program is small change. The $2.5 million program breaks down to "about $416 per person," Bedynek says.
Moreover, there is a priceless benefit. The screening program has uncovered several people with undetected heart problems. As a result, one ARSTAF participant wound up having coronary artery bypass surgery -- before the problem could cause a heart attack.