Employees at Motley Fool in Alexandria, Va., have many options to stay fit. Pictured, a daily "planking" session with, clockwise from left, Sara Klieger, Sam Whiteside, Diane Morris, Nate McMahon, Jenifer Parker(CQ) and Lysha Fuentes(CQ). (Bill O'Leary/Washington Post)

Wellness programs are nothing new, but some experts and human resources directors have noticed a concerted shift in companies’ approaches.

“There’s been a move away from just thinking about wellness as something that can lower health-care costs,” said Jeff Levin-Scherz, a professor at Harvard Medical School and a senior consultant at Towers Watson, a health-care benefits consultancy. “People are thinking about wellness programs more as a way to create an environment and culture that is more health conscious.”

These new-age plans try to tackle the intangible, immeasurable aspects of an employee’s life that invariably creep into the workplace.In other words, “wellness” is giving way to “well-being.”

In addition to fitness classes and health screenings, some companies offer financial planning workshops, meditation classes and free massages — anything that gives employees greater peace of mind.

Take WeddingWire, an online marketplace for wedding planners and the couples they serve. It offers a $250 “treat yourself” reimbursement that can be used for anything that either increases an employee’s knowledge about a subject or improves a worker’s physical fitness

You’ll now hear managers use words such as “resilience” — a broad term meant to describe how employees respond to stress and setbacks — as often as they mention insurance claims.

“If you’re doing a better job at helping people be more resilient, you should have more productive employees and you should have better margins,” Levin-Scherz said.

Bragging rights

The shift is part of an evolution in doling out health-care benefits, understanding that health insurance is only one part of the equation. Two years ago, for instance, executives at the 120-employee Nuclear Energy Institute came up with a five-year, multi-faceted plan to manage health costs: They started offering a third, high-deductible plan alongside their other offerings, and they made a point of scaling up an in-office commitment to help employees stay healthy.

“If we can get people healthy, we can manage claims,” said Lori Brady, a senior manager at the institute.

Now the organization offers on-site salsa and belly-dancing classes, Weight Watchers and healthy cooking classes, and even occasional acupuncture seminars. It holds a healthy living competition in which teams of four compete for $200 prizes by logging steps on individual pedometers, and it hosts a healthy foods potluck judged by a nutritionist. Peer pressure becomes a tool for healthy living, as employees egg one another on and one-up one another.

“We’ve got really competitive people, and if you know how to play that angle you can really get a lot out of them as far as wellness,” Brady said. “It’s more about bragging rights than anything.”

Do these programs actually succeed at pulling claims down? It’s hard to tell. But many companies are satisfied as long as their efforts liven up the workplace and give employees something to be excited about.

“It’s very hard to measure the return on investment for something like a yoga class,” said Jim O’Connor, president for employee benefits at CBiz, a Cleveland-based benefits consultancy. “As a financial leader you want to be able to see a return on investment for everything you do, and yet companies are still making an investment in [wellness programs] because they intuitively feel it’s a good idea.”

‘ Active meetings’

Wellness programs are popular among the region’s top workplaces. With health-care costs marching ever upward, even some financially healthy companies are shifting costs to employees, cutting premium contributions or raising the deductibles that employees have to pay at the doctor’s office, all with the goal of coaxing people into purchasing only the care they really require. This means many people in today’s workforce have to shoulder more of their own health-care costs, or at least think more critically about them. Wellness programs usually are introduced as a way to address rising costs, but many have taken on a life of their own as employees and managers mold and mend them to fit the company culture.

Motley Fool, a midsize investment services and advisory firm based in Alexandria, recently started holding what it calls “active meetings” in which employees are encouraged to exercise in the middle of business meetings. Regardless of whether anyone else finds it distracting, employees will randomly get down on the floor and do push-ups in the middle of a meeting, or the boss might order everyone to get into a sitting position against the wall, to strengthen their legs.

“We’re such a strange and open culture anyway,” said Erik Stadnik, who works in the company’s legal department. “So people got used to [the active meetings] very quickly.

The loopier aspects of the Motley Fool’s benefits package seem to flow from the company culture at large, which emphasizes quirky over corporate. The company has been known to hold in-office Nerf gun fights, and employees played “haunted cornhole” — a bean-bag toss game —in the office on Halloween. In a snub to the 9-to-5 workday, Motley Fool employees set their own schedules, with some workers showing up as late as 11:30 a.m. if it works best for them. Managers don’t mind as long as employees get their work done.

The company says that close to 90 percent of its employees participate in at least one component of the wellness program, and it thinks it can get it up to 100 percent.

“The trick is to get to know your people first, get their trust. And then they’ll pretty much let you run them into the ground if you want to,” said Sam Whiteside, Motley Fool’s nutritionist and personal trainer.