Stop the insanity – simple steps employers can take to improve workplace health

August 28, 2014

To paraphrase Albert Einstein, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Unfortunately, this is the approach taken by America as we poured more than $3 trillion into health care last year – of which a significant portion could’ve been saved if private and public sector employers had invested in disease prevention and workplace health promotion.

Rising health care costs are the primary driver of our national debt, and while there are many factors involved, it is in large part due to our chronic disease epidemic among working age Americans. Adding to the senselessness – a significant part of the burden of risk and disease is largely preventable. Changing how we manage workplace health can have significant benefits to not only our health but the economy.

The resounding success of private sector initiatives to prevent the onset of the four diseases responsible for 63% of all deaths today is finally prompting CEOs, public health officials, and Congress to try to change the skewed incentive system that encourages sick people to pursue expensive treatments, rather than to reward healthy people for taking care of themselves.

Improving workplace health

The good news is that the workplace serves as a microcosm of society and offers many opportunities for success including a concentrated group of people— working age Americans— who share a common purpose and culture, programs that reach large segments of the population, available social and organizational supports, and financial or other types of incentives can be offered to gain participation in programs.

To make measurable improvements we find the following elements provide the greatest opportunities for success:

  • Companies with high health participation are characterized by a strong wellness communication strategy, strong upfront incentive and the use of employee rewards.
  • Companies that have wellness champions were found to have significantly higher levels of employee engagement.
  • Organizations with leadership commitment see greater traction.
  • The use of screenings, triage and intervention programs have proven effective.
  • And most importantly, you can’t improve what you don’t measure… evaluation elements are to impactful programs.

On the flip side, where we see failures, it’s often when employers have relied solely on the use of HRAs or biometric testing. Offering $200 to employees who take their HRA is participation, but not necessarily engagement. True engagement happens only with multiple events over the course of several months. Additionally, programs that are disconnected from a comprehensive health promotion program, “under the radar” actions (provided by health plans), focused only on short term campaigns (i.e. Biggest Loser contest), target only the unhealthy people, and provide poor communications to employees have proven to be ineffective.

It’s not rocket science

Employers can bring about meaningful change and see improvements that can significantly impact their bottom line by implementing the following approaches:

  • Provide incentives to overcome present bias.
  • Use “nudges” and simple environmental design changes to make healthy choices easier.
  • Build synergy between personal and “non personal” approaches.
  • Use technologies to prod, stimulate, connect, and support behavior change.
  • Measure processes and outcomes, evaluate and adapt.
  • Find a common definition of engagement and work with it.

It makes sense that better health will lead to economic growth. By educating and building a cadre of workplace health leaders capable of having a real impact, we can dramatically improve our most competitive advantage and one of the top economic drivers in the country – our workforce.

 Join Vitality for a special webinar September 10 on the critical role of the workplace in tackling NCDs in the US. For more information and to register.

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