Are Healthy Communities Composed of Healthy Employees?


By Steven Ross Johnson
Businesses could have a significant impact on public health, according to a new report.

The report finds a link between the health of a business’s employees and that of the community where it’s located. Workplace wellness strategies that solely focus on employees are less effective than those that also address social determinants within the surrounding area.

“The public health world has often neglected the role of the employer as being a potentially very powerful force for improving public health,” said report co-author Derek Yach, executive director of the Vitality Institute, a health research organization that conducted the analysis with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “What would happen if we had better synergy between the work of a public health department or community health work and the employer in a community?”

Researchers reviewed health data from more than 3,100 U.S. counties, looking at various statistics including obesity, smoking and deaths from heart disease, and compared them to workforce health data for 21 major industries. The analysis found industries with unhealthy workers were also more likely to live in counties with poor health.

Yach said businesses should work with local research institutions and health organizations to extend their workplace wellness programs into the community. He said doing so would make such initiatives more effective, particularly among businesses that mostly draw their employees from the area where they are located.

Yach said those efforts would improve the overall health of the workforce. The report estimates unhealthy behavior costs U.S. businesses more than $225 billion a year in lost productivity due to absenteeism and illness.

“By working to lower the overall risk—whether it’s tobacco use or obesity or physical inactivity—you’re more likely to be drawing employees who are healthier, and will ultimately save you on long-term healthcare costs,” Yach said. “When you start doing that you find that your own internal efforts to improve the health of employees start having not only a doubling, but even a tripling positive effect.”

The findings support two concepts that have gained popularity in recent years—workplace wellness programs and population health.

In the past decade more businesses have started workplace wellness programs to address rising worker-related health costs. An estimated 79% of U.S. companies offer some form of health improvement program.

Many health systems have begun to look at ways to improve the overall health of the patient populations they serve as a way to reduce costs in the face of reimbursement changes that penalize frequent hospital readmissions.

According to Laura Ritzler, director of wellness for ProMedica, combining community health initiatives with workplace wellness incentives is a natural way of addressing both problems since a good portion of the Toledo, Ohio-based health system’s 16,000 employees live in the many communities where it has facilities.

Not-for-profit ProMedica was one of the first major health systems in the country that sought to address nonmedical social factors, such as poverty, homelessness and hunger in their local communities as a way of improving health outcomes.

Some of the health system’s community initiatives include food drives and obesity education. It has also invested in community organizations that are creating affordable housing and setting up a grocery store in an underserved part of the city. Some of its community interventions, such as nutrition education to address obesity, are extended to ProMedica employees along with workplace initiatives such as programs to reduce smoking and sugary beverage consumption.

“I think it’s a natural fit for healthcare because most health organizations are very interested in not only improving the health of their employees but also improving the health of their patients and the communities they live in,” Ritzler said.


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