The old adage "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," is more true now than ever. Organizations are increasingly frustrated by the inability of traditional wellness programs to affect any sort of real employee health changes that lower costs. So they're shifting the strategy back to basics: giving employees the tools and motivation they need to take a preventive approach to health.
Prevention is about keeping individuals healthy and out of the healthcare system before they need treatment. A recent Buck Consultants' survey found only 10 percent of US respondents felt they'd fully achieved a culture of health in their organizations, while 85 percent intend to pursue one.
This is uncharted territory and companies are clamoring for best practices information around prevention, creating a culture of health and successful employee health initiatives. Corporate America's support for creating a culture of health has finally come around, and not a moment too soon.
Economic studies from a Virgin HealthMiles research team recently concluded the operating profits of companies in major industries like technology and finance could decline approximately 25 percent on average in 10 or more years (based on chronic disease cost trends from the past decade, if organizations cannot increase prices or productivity).
And employees feel it, too, paying more out of their pockets for higher premiums. The good news? We can actually do something about it. Seventy-five percent of healthcare costs today are driven by often preventable and highly manageable chronic diseases, such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer.
Priorities must shift to the offensive: it's time to prevent lifestyle-related illness and empower employees to make better health decisions. And there's no better community for reinforcing the power of prevention and good health than the workplace. More than half of our waking hours are spent at work. Aside from our households, our "work family" is arguably the most influential community we belong to.
Prevention: The Foundation for a Culture of Health
Not sure that prevention and simple things like getting more physically active can make a real difference? Think again. Take a look at two very serious and costly diseases - Type 2 diabetes and heart disease - and how much healthy behaviors like sufficient levels of physical activity, a healthy diet and being smoke-free can reduce the prevalence of chronic diseases in a population. As compared to individuals who do not have the following healthy habits, individuals who:
- Get enough physical activity and manage their weight are 55% less likely to develop Type 2 diabetes and 35% less likely to develop cardiovascular diseases (heart disease and stroke)
- Eat a diet low in sugars and trans fats are 30% less likely to develop type 2 diabetes and 28% less likely to develop heart disease
- Avoid tobacco are 30% less likely to develop Type 2 diabetes and 35% less likely to develop cardiovascular disease
Those numbers are pretty staggering. Now, considering that seven out of 10 US adults don't meet the minimum exercise or nutrition requirements, imagine the impact an employer can have in preventing or remediating these conditions.
According to the CDC, out of 1,000 employees with Type 2 diabetes, a physically active lifestyle could have prevented 390 of those new cases, which are contributing a staggering $174 billion to the country's healthcare system each year. Effectively structured and implemented incentives-based wellness programs can help to lower healthcare costs by encouraging higher amounts of these healthy habits, which can prevent or delay the onset of costly chronic conditions.
Recent data shows that 70 percent of employers now offer incentives to employees to participate in wellness initiatives. And the approach is working. Nearly 88 percent of employees said incentives were an extremely or somewhat important contributor to long-term participation in wellness programs.
June's National Employee Wellness Month: A Great Time to Put Prevention Into Action
Making a commitment to good health involves improving a range of behaviors as part of maintaining a healthier lifestyle.June is National Employee Wellness Month (www.nationalemployeewellnessmonth.com) and a great time for employees to get active.
Employers can easily and quickly demonstrate support for healthy behavior changes. For example, encourage lunchtime walking groups, support a company softball league and post information about walking/biking/swimming events for charity.
Simple, cost-effective initiatives can make a big difference. Following are a few ways you can help to keep employee energy and productivity levels high, while promoting healthy behaviors on and off the clock:
- Take a quick walk. A few brisk laps around the office, or outside, revives the body and brain, increasing your ability to focus when you're back at work.
- Drink water. Dehydration makes us tired and can disguise itself as hunger, so drink plenty of water throughout the day.
- Eat a balanced lunch. Don't overeat. Avoid foods high in fat and sugar; these will cause your blood sugar levels to spike and then crash. Include complex carbs like brown rice or whole wheat bread or crackers, along with some protein to keep you full and fuel your brain.
- Have a healthy snack. Keep your blood sugar up, so you can stay alert. Try some almonds, string cheese, or fresh fruit to refuel.
- Stand up and stretch. Take a moment to deeply breathe in and out to send some oxygen to your brain, which helps provide clarity, ease anxiety, and promote relaxation.
- Schedule an in-person meeting. Get up and interact with co-workers to revive and engage the body and mind.
- Get your Zzzs. Don't underestimate the power of a good night's sleep. Eight solid hours promotes health, better decision-making and reduced stress.
The pressure is on today to find a solution for rising healthcare costs and to increase employee productivity. Employers have the power to create a culture of health and use prevention-based initiatives to transform the health of their workforce. Focus on engaging employees in their health, promote healthy lifestyle changes both at work and outside of the workplace, and see a culture of health emerge.
Virgin HealthMiles (www.virginhealthmiles.com) created National Employee Wellness Month in 2009, in partnership with the STOP Obesity Alliance, and the 2012 initiative is sponsored by those organizations along with the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease and WorldatWork. National Employee Wellness Month occurs each June and motivates business leaders to make employee health a priority in their organizations.