Promoting worksite wellness serious business

Veronica Daehn Harvey

Worksite wellness isn’t just a catch phrase, a fad or something health care leaders like to push to add to the already full workloads of business owners and managers. Worksite wellness is serious business. And it really matters.

Consider these statistics from the Public Health Institute and American Public Health Association:

Two-thirds of the U.S. work force is overweight or obese.

A fourth of Americans have heart disease.

A third of Americans have high blood pressure.

Nationally, the annual cost of obesity among full-time employees reaches $73 billion.

Of U.S. company profits, half goes toward the cost of health care.

Employers lose $153 billion annually because of absenteeism from workers who are overweight or obese or suffer from other chronic health conditions. Those full-time employees miss a collective 450 million days of work.

See? Serious business.

But implementing a worksite wellness program doesn’t have to feel like writing a master’s thesis. It can start small. Baby steps are good. Support is available.

For instance, a business owner or manager who realizes his work force could be healthier but is unsure how to go about implementing change has some options. It’s not all or nothing. What’s important is making incremental changes to the culture of an organization.

Here are some initial steps to get started with a worksite wellness program:

Skip the pizza or doughnuts at meetings. Opt for healthier food instead. Whole-grain bagels with light cream cheese or peanut butter, fruit, sandwiches filled with good-for-you ingredients, baked chips and veggies with a low-fat/high-protein dip such as hummus all offer better choices.

Instead of sitting around a table in the conference room, go outside. Conduct meetings while you walk.

Offer employees flexible break times. Support yoga or stretching in their offices or cubicles.

Encourage employees to take the stairs. Post flyers in the elevator lobby directing people if stairwells are tucked away.

Encourage mid-day or mid-afternoon employee walks. Consider providing water bottles for employees who participate. But don’t let that be a barrier: Changing the culture is more important than swag.

Host a lunch-and-learn presentation from a local health educator. Ask your employees what they’d like to learn about.

To improve the health of a workplace, leaders must model healthy choices and support employee initiatives and interests. It’s also critical for owners and managers to recognize the diversity of their staff should be reflected in any worksite wellness program.

The Mesa County Health Department recently led a six-week marathon challenge for all Mesa County employees.

Marathon usually connotes running, but not everyone enjoys running or has the ability to do so. So leaders encouraged employees to log 26.2 miles running or walking over the six-week period. Cycling was also encouraged, although the mileage goal was adjusted to more than a traditional marathon for those who completed the challenge on their bikes. 

Millie Fowler, a member of the Mesa County information technology team, was skeptical of joining the challenge at first. She worried about finding time to walk each day. But with the encouragement of a colleague, she decided to give it a go. The minutes flew by. And before long, she was easily walking 2 miles a day. She used a “MyTrac” application to track her miles and her pace. After completing the program, she felt healthier and slept better at night.

Fowler continues to walk four to six days a week and remains thankful for the positive ripple effect the  marathon challenge created.

After the challenge ended, members of the Mesa County IT team started their own challenge — to walk 90 miles in three months. About 80 percent of the team participates, and a manager made sure every participant received a pedometer.

But it’s about the bottom line, right? Of course.

The health and wellness of a company’s employees directly affects profits. Even small investments in health within the workplace can return big dividends.

Research shows that for every $1 spent on workplace wellness, employers can save $2 to $3 per employee. Just a 1 percent reduction in health risks could save as much as $83 to $103 annually in medical costs per person.

Really, it’s a win-win.

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