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The Importance of Corporate Wellness

Greg Justice, MA

A stick figure filling in the center of a puzzle with the missing piece.

The Importance of Corporate Wellness

American employers lose over $300 billion of productivity annually due to illness, sick days, absenteeism and sub-par performance (“presenteeism”).

For every dollar an employer spends on salaries and wages, they spend a minimum of an additional 10 cents on health insurance and workers compensation costs.  This is above and beyond the unintentional and often unrecognized costs noted above.

Why is wellness important in the corporate environment?  Why should employers be concerned about their employees’ wellness?

The average employee misses 8.4 days annually due to illness or injury, totaling over $63 billion nationwide.  The employee with a serious or chronic condition (diabetes, lung disease, heart disease, cancer, etc.) misses 72 days annually, and works at diminished capacity when present.  Nationwide, over 2.5 billion work days are reduced or lost completely.  Do you think this is the kind of workforce employers intended to employ?  Do you think they budgeted for this reduction in productivity?

Everyone gets sick from time to time, right?  Maybe so; maybe no.  Even the common cold is subject to a person’s immune system letting it occur, so if some employees are in stellar health, they may well not miss a single day or even be under the weather for years at a time.  Which would you rather have?  A workforce of vital, energetic hard-working individuals focused on results and available to work when and where you need them?  Or a workforce of average individuals who use up most of their sick leave, (if not more than their fair share), and come to work dragging their heads and underperforming?

Wellness in the workplace has many benefits, and employers who have tracked their employees’ wellness, as well as those who have contributed to their employees’ wellness, have enjoyed increases in productivity, decreased healthcare costs, decreased workers compensation costs, and increased employee loyalty and higher morale.

Benefits of Wellness in the Workplace

Although good health and vitality benefit an employee in every aspect of his or her life, they also specifically benefit the employer as well.  Just as investing in an employees’ training provides a better, more valuable resource, investing in their health will provide an employer with a more effective and consistently available resource.

The costs of unhealthy employees is staggering.  “Soft costs” such as absenteeism and reduced productivity are calculated as costing four to seven times the amount that employers pay in health insurance premiums and workers compensation premiums combined.

The American population is sadly unhealthy overall.  So if an employer’s employees are average, in terms of their health, they are most likely overweight, 30% of them are obese, many are at risk for or already have diabetes, high blood pressure, respiratory compromise, and/or heart disease.  Employers need to take a look at their staff.  Who is overweight?  Who has a flushed face and is breathing hard just walking in from the parking lot?  Who are the couch potatoes?  Who’s on medication for high blood pressure or other chronic impairments?  (Bear in mind here that discriminating against employees due to medical disability is certainly not encouraged and in most cases is illegal.  But we’re just talking about getting a sense of the overall health of their entire staff.)

If employers look at their workforce from this perspective, are they pleased with what they see?  Or do they have a rising sense of discomfort when they write out the check for their health insurance payment or their workers compensation premiums?  Or when one of their employees calls in sick for the 15th time this year with a migraine?  How can you be mean to someone with a migraine?  But is a migraine a sign of lack of stress management?  Or is it a debilitating illness that springs up in a volume?  Would providing stress management and exercise opportunities, and even strongly encouraging those with incentives get employers more consistently available and performing employees?

What Is Wellness?

The Random House definition of wellness is:

  1. The quality or state of being healthy in body and mind, esp. as the result of deliberate effort.
  2. An approach to healthcare that emphasizes preventing illness and prolonging life, as opposed to emphasizing treating diseases.

I’ll be incorporating both of those definitions into the topics discussed in this series of articles.

Some people look at wellness simply as the absence of any apparent or disabling illness.  But being “healthy” is not simply a matter of being average in terms of having illnesses that are common and treated with over the counter drugs or with barely a raised eyebrow from the medical community.

If you look at the life insurance weight tables, you’ll see numbers that reflect the average of what people actually weigh, which is not the same as the weights recommended as healthy.  The casual observer believes that if their weight falls within those on the table, he or she must be “okay.”  That is not the case.  It just means that he or she is within the statistical norm.  The same disconnect exists in our perception of the health of those around us (and ourselves!).  We become used to what’s the norm, not what’s actually healthy, and we use “normal” as the benchmark for “healthy.”  It’s not.  Vitality, energy, stamina, and systemic strength are what’s healthy.  Chronic disease, even low-level, missed work, repeated colds, sore throats, sinus infections, headaches, etc. are all signs of an unhealthy body and life.  And they will all respond to wellness intervention if the employee is willing to participate.

An example of a common disease is heartburn or gastro-esophageal reflux disorder (GERD).  Thousands upon thousands of people suffer from this affliction.  Very strong and effective medications are available to treat its symptoms, both over the counter and by prescription.  It is such a frequent affliction that people don’t take it very seriously.

However, notwithstanding the potentially catastrophic medical results of chronic GERD (esophageal lesions or cancer, for example), people with GERD are found to suffer decreased productivity so severely that a recent study by the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders has calculated that over $2 billion is lost in productivity each week due to the disease.  That’s right – Each Week!

What does this have to do with wellness, you might ask?  Very conveniently, two common ways to reduce or eliminate GERD are weight loss and stress reduction.  Both can easily be accomplished through a good exercise regimen.  A wellness program can efficiently and effectively reduce the incidence of GERD for individuals and for entire workforces.  An estimated five to seven percent of people are chronic GERD sufferers.    Can you see the benefit of a bit of wellness-oriented intervention?

You may think that other illnesses, such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and stroke are just bad luck, and it’s a shame when they happen to someone, but they cannot be prevented.

Fortunately, for those who wish to take the steps, the incidence of such diseases can be radically minimized by living a fit and healthy life.  Of the top seven causes of death, six are what we call “lifestyle diseases”.  This means that they are caused by a person’s lifestyle choices, at least in part, if not in whole.

These diseases are as follows:

Disease Percentage of deaths
Heart Disease 28.5%
Cancer 22.8%
Stroke 6.7%
Respiratory disease 5.1%
Accidents 4.4%
Diabetes 3%
Flu and pneumonia 2.7%

And even though we say that “accidents” are the exception to the lifestyle disease mortality percentages, even some of those deaths could be prevented by such activities as wearing seat belts, not driving while impaired, or taking other precautions.

What if you were a business owner?  If you look at the above table and sort through your work force, you would no doubt find a good handful of employees that either suffer from or are at risk for one or more of these diseases.  And while the disease may not kill them while they are your employee, the chances are that their work for you will be negatively impacted by their struggle with the disease.

From a humanitarian viewpoint, of course you would want the best for your employees, and you would want to see them free of these dread diseases.  However, there is also the very practical matter of your business’s bottom line that gives you a vital interest in your employees being free of disease.

Between the times employees spend at the doctor’s office, the time they spend out sick, and the time they are working at less than full speed, employers are losing an average of $2,000 to $2,800 per employee per year due to illnesses.  These numbers do not include the healthcare costs or workers compensation costs incurred due to illness.

Review the above table carefully, and you will also note that many of these illnesses can be mitigated or prevented entirely by a healthy lifestyle.  A healthy lifestyle can be roughly defined as maintaining an optimal weight, eating right, not smoking, engaging in (at least) moderate exercise, and managing stress.

Even when it comes to such illnesses as the flu, a person’s immune system plays a tremendous part in whether or not an illness will take hold.  A healthy immune system can be developed and maintained by living a healthy lifestyle.

The relationship between a healthy diet and cardiovascular health and diabetes is even clearer, subject to the rare exceptions when a person is afflicted with a genetic or structural flaw in their system.  Even then, taking measures to live a healthy lifestyle may prolong life and vitality.

Next month I’ll write about some the developing trends in the world of corporate wellness.

greg-justice“Training veteran Greg Justice didn’t just get in on the leading edge of an emerging industry 20-some years ago, he helped create it. Opening the first personal training studio in Kansas City, Justice has, over the years, laid the groundwork for countless others to follow.
Being a trailblazer, however, takes a willingness to plow into the thicket of uncertainty.  It means forging ahead with nothing but faith. As one of the true leaders of the personal training industry, Justice now has the benefit of hindsight and the insight of experience, both of which he eagerly offers up to the hundreds of trainers he has mentored.”
– Shelby Murphy
Personal Fitness Professional magazine, Journey to Success, May 2009
Greg Justice, MA opened AYC Health & Fitness, Kansas City’s Original Personal Training Center, in May 1986.  He has personally trained more than 40,000 one-on-one sessions.  Today, AYC specializes in corporate wellness and personal training.
Greg holds a master’s degree in HPER (exercise science) (1986) from Morehead State University, Morehead, KY and a bachelor’s degree in Health & Physical Education (1983) from Morehead State University, Morehead, KY.  Greg is also an AFAA certified personal trainer (CPT).
He has worked with athletes and non-athletes of all ages and physical abilities and served as a conditioning coach at the collegiate level.  He also worked with the Kansas City Chiefs, during the offseason, in the early 1980’s.
He has been actively involved in the fitness industry for more than a quarter of a century as a club manager, owner, personal fitness trainer, and corporate wellness supervisor where he worked with more than 60 corporations.  Greg writes articles for many international publications and websites including Exercise & Health, IDEA Fitness Journal, American Fitness Magazine, Protraineronline.com, Fitcommerce.com, Personal Trainer University, and has a monthly column called “Treadmill Talks” in Personal Fitness Professional (PFP) magazine.  He has authored a book titled “Lies & Myths about Corporate Wellness” and has been a contributing author for two other books.  He currently serves at the President of the Association of Professional Personal Trainers (APPT).
Greg was an adjunct professor of exercise science at Avila University and currently serves on the faculty of Personal Trainer University.  He mentors and instructs trainers interested in Corporate Wellness through his Corporate Boot Camp System class.  He developed this course because of the need of CEOs and HR Professionals for achieving a means of positive, effective, and lasting change toward more healthy and productive employees.  His system is tested and proven and combines the three major areas that business needs to address if they are to see a return on their employee benefits investment.

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