SHELDON, Iowa | Researchers at Iowa State University invited Rosenboom Machine & Tool last fall to participate in a pilot program that tests whether adding an employee wellness program makes sense.

ISU officials didn't have to wait long for an answer from the Northwest Iowa manufacturer.

"We didn't have a wellnesss program before," said Jack Schreurs, Rosenboom's human resources director. "It's something we talked about. When given the opporutnity, the owner's response was an immediate, 'Yes, we want to participate.' "

Rosenboom and two other Iowa manufacturers, The Graphic Edge in Carroll, Timberline Manufacturing Inc. in Marion, were chosen for the six-month study, which organizers hope will help other companies decide whether investing in health benefits will cut costs and improve productivity.

“All our evidence says there will be a net positive financial return for the companies,” Mike O’Donnell, program director for ISU's Center for Industrial Research and Service, or CIRS for short. “While we’re relatively sure helping employees become healthier will improve absenteeism rates, the real question is will it impact health care premiums?”

Starting in 2014, employers can offer more incentives for wellness programs as part of the Affordable Care Act. Businesses can also increase health care premiums for employees who do not participate in a wellness program.

President Larry Rosenboom said the family business offers a competitive benefit package that includes good health insurance. Adding a wellness program, he said, has the potential to not only help reduce the company's costs, also help employees become more aware of health issues and how they affect their family and work.

The program began in January with researchers recruiting 60 employees from each company. The Rosenboom participants were selected from the company's plant in Sheldon, which employs more than 300 people. The manufacturer, which serves customers in the agriculture, construction, refuse and transportation sectors, also has about 350 workers in Spirit Lake.

Participants were randomly split into two groups: one who only took a voluntary health risk assessment, and the other which was assigned a program on nutrition, exercise, stress and finances.

Schreurs said he was impressed with the scope of the program, which ranged from encouraging workers to exercise regularly to purchasing and preparing food for more healthy meals.

A unique aspect of the program was the focus on managing personal finances. That's because there is a strong association between physical health and financial health, said Tim Griesdorn, an ISU assistant professor of human development and family studies.

Employees completed surveys to assess their levels of financial stress and signed up to receive a free credit report. Nearly 60 percent had average levels of financial stress; nearly 15 percent were high. Griesdorn developed short courses to help employees understand their credit score and learn how to set financial goals, plan for retirement and eliminate debt.

“I believe one of the keys is self-control – the ability to have control over what you eat or what you spend, how to use your time, and whether or not you exercise. Anything we can do to improve or strengthen someone’s self-control muscle is going to have tremendous spillover effects through all areas of that person’s life,” Griesdorn said.

After checking blood pressure, testing cholesterol levels and gauging body composition, researchers said they were most surprised by the lack of flexibility among employees. The majority – as many as 85 percent when testing for the left arm – had poor or low flexibility, which can have significant consequences.

“When you’re dealing in a manufacturing environment, regardless of the task, dexterity and flexibility are always going to be important. You need to assemble things, you need to weld them, and some people need to lift things,” O’Donnell said. “If you’re not flexible, you’re at risk for higher injury rates, at risk for not being able to do your job well enough.”

Through a wellness program, employers can help workers improve their flexibilty, said Ruth Litchfield, an ISU associate professor in food science and human nutrition.

The initial health assessment also found:

-- More than 80 percent of employees were obese or overweight – this was not determined by weight and height, but based on body composition, which compares body fat to lean body mass.

-- Nearly 45 percent of employees were at high to very high risk for chronic disease, such as Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and hypertension as assessed by waist to hip ratio.

-- Only 26 percent smoke, but those who do smoke an average of 12 cigarettes a day.

Study subjects will be asked to take additional health risk assessments in January to see if they are making improvements.