More New Jersey law firms are offering health education, medical monitoring and diet/exercise programs to improve employee vitality and, hopefully, reduce health insurance costs. [See chart.]

“It’s a new wrinkle in benefits,” says Patricia Hager, director of human resources at McCarter & English in Newark.

Wellness programs typically feature medical monitoring, educational programs and individualized personal fitness and diet programs. Some include physical examinations, stress tests, substance abuse and group counseling and discounts on weight-reduction programs and health club memberships.

While all of this can be done informally in-house or through an insurance company, there are program providers that can do it for you. One tri-state company, Open House Direct, used by Gibbons in Newark, offers ergonomic assessments and instructions on how to make the work environment healthier.

Wellness Solutions of New England, for example, a wellness program operator in Concord, Mass., says wellness programs can reduce insurance costs, absenteeism and workplace injuries while improving productivity.

Insurance companies say wellness programs decrease medical costs. The health insurer Travelers Corp., for example, claims it saved $3.40 for every $1 invested in health promotion among its own employees and sick leave dropped 19 percent.

Pedometer Talk

Stark & Stark, a 98-lawyer firm in Princeton, kicked off its wellness program in March. Its offerings include a walking program and it has given out free pedometers. At lunchtime, employees can be found following a walking route through and around the building.

Pedometer talk has become the equivalent of water-cooler discussions.

“The question is: what’s your number?” says Timothy McNamara, a criminal trial attorney. “We’re looking at the numbers on everyone’s pedometer.”

Pedometer readings are taken every Friday. Prizes are given out each month for the most improved pedometer mileage and a grand prize is awarded after three months, says Bonnie Brenner, director of human services.

Other Stark & Stark programs have included stress tests; a hypnotist-nurse who held a stop-smoking program; and a talk by the director of fitness education from Can Do Fitness Clubs.

The firm also has held seminars with Weight Watchers and the American Heart Association through its carrier, AmeriHealth. Health issues, such as smoking cessation, are discussed at brown bag lunches. And employees got free massages in April during Stress Awareness Month.

“Deadlines make our job stressful,” says Allen Silk, a Stark & Stark business and tax attorney. “It’s difficult to budget time for your own health. This program forces you to do that.”

Silk says in a service industry, poor health affects production and demeanor. “I had a physical today and my doctor said I looked good and lost a little weight. That’s good enough for me to see the effects,” says Silk.

Other New Jersey firms have set up programs to deal with diet, exercise and overall health.

Lowenstein Sandler in Roseland offers discounts for Jenny Craig, NutriSystem and Weight Watchers, as well as discounts on health club memberships through Aetna Intela-Health’s program, says Penny Hardt, the firm’s benefits coordinator.

Drinker Biddle in Florham Park and Princeton has free gyms onsite, says Julie Day, manager of benefits in the Human Resources Information Department. The firm also offers seminars on stress management and brown bag lunches during seminars on health issues, says Barbara Harper, a benefits administrator.

Riker, Danzig, Scherer, Hyland & Perretti in Morristown covers one-third of the cost of a gym membership for lawyers or staff members who have worked at the firm for a year or more, says director of administration Jack Berkowitz.

Some firms offer cash incentives for weight loss. For example, Sills Cummis Epstein & Gross in Newark had a program with Weight Watchers that offered refunds for people who lost the most weight.

Many worksite wellness incentives are covered by the insurer, but some law firms, like Riker Danzig, pay for exercise programs out of pocket.

McCarter & English this year paid the St. Barnabas Behavioral Health Network Institute for Prevention to create a smoking cessation program.

“You need a lot of handholding to quit smoking,” says Hager, the firm’s director of human resources.

Some firms offer offsite programs as well. McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter in Morristown holds a retreat each year, offering stress relief and wellness exercises.

Stark & Stark has a real advocate of wellness programs in 65-year-old Josef Saloman. The stress test he took in 2004, before the firm had such a program, led to a quadruple bypass that probably saved his life, he says. “The test revealed possible blockages,” he adds.

Stark & Stark’s wellness program, Saloman says, helps create consistent healthy eating and exercise habits.

He adds that getting and staying healthy is an ongoing process that he’s working at day by day. “I was reluctant at first about the program. When I started climbing the stairs, I never thought I’d make it. Now I’m flying up and beating the young people to the top.”