Written by: Angela Mucci


MountainWise, a regional public health partnership, will use an $873,930 grant from Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) to fund the expansion of their WorkWise Western North Carolina program. The WorkWise Western North Carolina (WWWNC) project implementation will take place over a two year period and will result in a healthy, skilled, and ready workforce. MountainWise will  build and expand on already existing comprehensive Worksite Wellness programs in 24 automotive, aviation and advanced manufacturing industry worksites in Western North Carolina (WNC).They will work closely with 8 County Health Departments in the following westernmost counties: Haywood, Jackson, Swain, Graham, Cherokee, Clay, Macon and Transylvania Counties.

Throughout the past three years MountainWise has established successful worksite wellness programs at 26 sites throughout the above-mentioned counties. While utilizing CDC funding they have worked with 4,635 employees at various work sites to create systems which increased access to healthy eating, physical activity and tobacco free living. MountainWise maintains a collaborative, incentive and voluntary-based approach to all partnerships.

Worksite Wellness programs begin several different ways. Sometimes MountainWise approaches a business, explaining what they have to offer. Often times, due to word of mouth, businesses approach MountainWise after seeing the results enjoyed by other businesses who utilized wellness programs. MountainWise then collaborates with site volunteers to create a Worksite Wellness Committee and assess the strengths and needs for the location. Assessment tools include a CDC Worksite Health Scorecard, a MountainWise WorkWise Toolkit and an employee interest survey. Next they use the combined results to create and implement action plans which include incentive-based activities and policies that will result in healthier lifestyles for employees.

For example, some locations have set up gyms in unused offices or basements while others have brought fitness instructors to their locations to lead classes. Other Wellness Committees  have decided to create hallway healthy snack stations in order to keep sugar cravings at bay or they have arranged for nutrition presentations at work. Some work sites have had fun with good- natured competitive reward programs, which give employees the chance to earn points for a variety of wellness related activities such as: physical activity of their choice, tobacco cessation group participation. One work site took a chance and set up weekly line dancing at work, to great success. Whatever the work site decides on, MountainWise is there for creative brainstorming and to help locate the necessary resources for goal completion.   

MountainWise will continue to provide the same wellness program features related to healthy eating, physical activity and tobacco free living, and will also use the grant money to add clinical access options to participating sites. WWWNC Coordinator Nan Kramer said: “Through this funding we will be able to partner more with our health departments to offer clinical services directly to worksites, which is new. We are excited to get started and to positively impact our region through improving the health and wellness of our community.”  

The implementation of clinical services will enable locations to provide onsite telemedicine and preventative, biometric screenings such as measuring cholesterol, glucose or blood pressure levels. This will make it possible for employees to utilize medical services without having to take time off from work, and will also likely result in lowered insurance costs for participants and their employers. Additionally, sites will have the opportunity to provide nursing services, on-site referrals and behavioral/mental health services. 

MountainWise will expand the program to 24 new sites and nearly 5,000 employees while supporting the region’s manufacturing industries.They have begun collaborating with automotive, aviation and advanced manufacturing. Many manufacturing companies within the 8 westernmost counties have already written letters expressing interest in the program, which helped to solidify the success of the grant request. MountainWise looks forward to expanding the Worksite Wellness Programs to the manufacturing industries, which are a vital part of the local economy.  

There is much support for the WWWNC program because it yields many practical results.  Not only does it improve the individual health of WNC residents, it also creates a healthy workforce, a good thing for a company’s bottom line. At present, statistics show that there are threats to a healthy workforce. For example: According to the Creating a Culture of Health in Appalachia Report from ARC, residents of Appalachia experience consistently poorer health outcomes than national averages. The heart disease mortality rate is 17% higher than the national average, the cancer mortality rate is 10% higher than the national average, and the stroke mortality rate is 14% higher than the national average. Translating nation-wide data  to a company of 250 employees indicates that of the 250 employees approximately 160 are obese or overweight, 150 are sedentary, 125 have high cholesterol, 125 are stressed/depressed, 64 smoke, 62 have high blood pressure and 25 have diabetes. The results of an unhealthy workforce is higher healthcare costs, with one case of cardiovascular disease costing an employer $3,545 per year.These findings are also associated with lower productivity, work absences, and increased work injuries. Furthermore the mountainous terrain and rural location cause increased isolation from resources and a lack of access to healthcare and other essential opportunities.

The good news is that many of the chronic health conditions plaguing workers are the result of modifiable health behaviors: tobacco use, lack of physical activity, poor eating habits, and access to clinical preventive services. WWWNC programs are designed to provide the opportunity for people to reverse these behaviors, returning personal empowerment and health to individuals. The end results speaks for themselves.Within 3-5 years of implementing comprehensive wellness strategies, a worksite could see Return on Investment of nearly $4 in reduced health care costs and about $5 in reduced absenteeism costs for every dollar invested. More immediate results include positive attitude shifts and overall morale boost.

Worksite wellness programs also improve productivity, recruitment and retention rates, and also reduce sick leave, workers compensation costs and employee stress levels. Specifically, research has shown that worksite wellness programs can reduce health care costs by an average of 26%, lower absenteeism rates by an average of 28%, and decrease workers compensation and disability by an average of 30% (Partnership for Prevention).

Furthermore, the lasting impacts of the program will ripple out beyond the two year project timetable. MountainWise will work with participating companies to ensure that the programs will be self-sustaining at the end of the funding period. MountainWise director Sarah Tennyson stated: “We will provide full services at each site for year 1 of the program and then in year 2 the worksite will be responsible for a 50% match of cost for services. Sites will continue to take on more and more costs with responsibility for 100% of services once the grant has ended.”  Sites will be readily able to take on costs because MountainWise will assist in building relationships between sites and potential local funders, including county health departments.They will also explore potential future funding options from NC Department of Public Health and the CDC.

The health and wellbeing of the Western North Carolina Workforce is essential, and that’s why MountainWise will use the $873,930 in grant money to bring vital services, information and access options to regional industries. This Worksite Wellness program expansion will help to create a more resilient workforce and will improve the health of individuals, their families, the community, and the local economy. If you would like to bring WorkWise programs to your worksite, contact Nan Kramer at nan@mountainwise.org or 704.562.2828 for more information.