WELLAWARE: A healthy influence for mid-Missouri’s workforce

For most of his life, Ricky Harmon ate what he liked and as much as he wanted.

For him, that meant plenty of potatoes, pasta and dinners at buffet restaurants. He also started gaining weight, topping out at around 250 pounds.

Ricky Harmon

Ricky Harmon

“It came on after I got married,” said Ricky, 49, of Boonville. “Once you get married, you always get bigger.”

Despite the weight, Ricky figured he was healthy in September of 2009, as a lab tech poked a needle in his arm at a health screening.

But when his results came back, he quickly learned otherwise.

The glucose in Ricky’s blood was 293 mg/dl. Normal range is between 65 and 139 mg/dl.

“It was high,” Ricky said. “Very, very high.”

The scan took place at the Missouri State Teachers Association in Columbia. Ricky does custodial and maintenance work for the association. His employer sponsored the fair, which was run by Boone Hospital Center’s WELLAWARE program.

After receiving his abnormal results, Ricky scheduled an appointment with his doctor to find out what was wrong. Tests showed Ricky had type II diabetes.

Before the WELLAWARE health fair, he had no idea he was diabetic. But now, he was faced with either going on medication or making big life changes.

He chose the latter.

“I didn’t want to have to take the medication because of the side effects,” he said. “So that’s when I decided to start watching what I eat.”

He started studying food labels and monitoring his portion size. He said he was surprised to learn that a serving of pasta was about the size of a tennis ball, rather than the heaping plate he was served at many restaurants.

He also started taking 30-minute walks each day during his lunch break. If it rained, he would ride his stationary bike at home.

Three months later, with WELLAWARE back at his workplace, Ricky’s health scan showed his blood glucose was already improving and his weight was dropping. So he kept doing what he was doing.

“Everybody says ‘diet,’ Ricky said. “I don’t consider it a diet, it’s watching my portion size.”

Healthier bottom lines

Ricky is just one of thousands of mid-Missouri employees who have been served by WELLAWARE.

More than 90 local companies contract with WELLAWARE to provide a variety of health-related programs to their employees. This includes everything from employee health fairs and educational lunch programs to health challenges and massages.

Bringing these kinds of programs into a business can help nurture a culture of health, improve productivity and reduce absenteeism.

“With WELLAWARE, our staff interacts directly with the company’s employees and serves as their health coach, we really become part of each company’s team,” said Jeff Zimmermann, health promotions supervisor with WELLAWARE. “We find that bringing these programs to the workplace truly influences people’s choices and changes habits. For employers, that means healthier and more productive workers.”

While having healthier employees is one advantage of the program, WELLAWARE can also help local businesses achieve healthier bottom lines.

One Columbia company that has seen great success partnering with WELLAWARE is Missouri Employers Mutual. Since 1998, the two organizations have worked together to create an MEM workforce where healthy lifestyles are a focus and risk factors are addressed head-on.

This focus on a healthy workforce over time resulted in MEM seeing paid medical claims drop by 26.9 percent in 2009 — which equated to a significant savings for the company.

“We treat employee wellness as an investment, not as an expense,” said Sarah Dietz, who handles employee benefits at MEM. “Our company vision is to provide a safe, healthy and injury-free workplace. If we are going to promote that to our policyholders, we need to do that within our own walls.”

Ricky — one year later

A year after learning he had diabetes, a slim-looking Ricky Harmon weighs just 174 pounds.

He’s gone from a pant size 40 to a size 32. He feels better and has more energy at home and at his job at the Missouri State Teachers Association.

“If you lose more than 70 pounds, you’re going to feel better,” he said.

But even more important, Ricky still does not need any medication for his diabetes — he’s been able to manage it with his eating and lifestyle changes.

Ricky said he is thankful for the information he received at the WELLAWARE health screening. It helped him make a critical life change before he suffered serious consequences.

He encourages other people to educate themselves about the things they are eating and to take the time to read the labels.

“You’ve got to be a label reader,” he said. “Most everything has sugar in it, but you can try to get the least amount.”

For more information, contact the WELLAWARE Diabetes and Nutrition Clinic at 815-3870.

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