Business of Well-being

For Businesses, Small Steps Can Have a Big Impact on Community Health

The population of the United States is changing rapidly. We're older and more diverse than we've ever been, and we're not going back anytime soon. As the face of the country changes, it's becoming increasingly clear that old approaches to wellness are no longer sufficient. As we change, so must our approach to public health.

At the same time, we have access to more information than ever about our health and our daily habits. With Fitbits, smart watches, and other fitness-tracking gadgets strapped to our bodies, we can quantify, gamify, track, and broadcast the tiniest details of our health habits. Increasingly, such devices are finding their way into the business environment, and as a result, the workplace is becoming an important player in the bigger picture of community health.

There is a growing connection between business leaders who take an active role in tackling public health challenges and our ability to improve health outcomes for the community as a whole. The health challenges are real. Michael Roizen, MD, chief wellness officer at the Cleveland Clinic, points out that the typical American today eats more - by 250 to 300 calories per day - and exercises less than they used to.

As a result, we weigh about 25 pounds more on average than we did 25 years ago.In addition, the United States spends just 3 percent of its health care money on prevention and 75 percent fighting preventable conditions. We're fighting battles we shouldn't need to fight, and if it continues, that spending pattern creates an undeniable problem. Projections suggest in the next 10 years, health care spending will surpass what was projected for the next 70.

It's not all about physical fitness, either. One area where health care costs are particularly adding up is mental health and wellness. The United States spent an estimated $201 billion last year on mental disorders like anxiety and depression. That's more than on any other medical condition and $122 billion more than a decade ago, and employers are starting to recognize the need to focus on mental health.

Look for the broader impact

As the population changes, Harvard public health leadership professor Howard Koh, MD, argues, we need to make a greater effort to look beyond what's immediately around us. We need to see the impact our actions have on the broader community. Business leaders, because of their prominent place in many communities, are in a unique position to facilitate cross-sector collaboration. If employers make health a defining factor in the workplace, it inspires employees to evaluate their own situations.

Ultimately, employees will take their new outlook back to their families. Household by household, our approach to our own health has the potential to change the environment around us. This kind of trickle-down effect, Roizen argues, can gain momentum as it goes. Small changes compounded over time can have a big impact on individual health, he points out.

So, seemingly minor steps by an employer - reducing access to sugary snacks or fast food in the workplace, for example - can add up quickly for the larger employee population, both in the office and beyond. Roizen recommends businesses take steps to motivate employees, no matter where they are on their personal wellness journey. Anything a business can do to knock down barriers that stand between employees and a healthier lifestyle will produce benefits beyond what is immediately obvious.

The case for community health

We see the impact a business can have on community health, but is there a compelling reason to get involved? In a word, yes.The typical individual spends a significant portion of his or her day in the workplace, and there is evidence the work environment can play a significant role in overall health. An NPR/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health poll, cited by Koh, reports that most working adults believe their jobs have a negative influence on their health.

The work environment affects our stress level, eating habits, sleeping habits, and weight, all of which play a role in our overall well-being. Improve the workplace, and it becomes easier to improve overall health. That could be good for the bottom line, as well as the waistline. Roizen reports that from 2000 to 2015, business productivity gains were eaten up by increased health care costs. Wellness programs have been shown to decrease both direct and out-of-pocket medical spending, putting some of those gains back into the company coffers.

It doesn't take a lot to make a difference. A 2014 Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Communities environmental scan from the Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO) found that encouraging just 10 percent of adults to walk more would eliminate $5.6 billion in heart disease costs. Or, consider that productivity losses related to personal and family health problems cost U.S. employers an estimated $1,685 per employee per year.

There are less tangible benefits, too. A Cone Communications study found that 90 percent of individuals have a more positive image of companies that work for the social good. Spreading a culture of wellness to the greater community can also make that community a more appealing place for potential employees to live. Think of it as using health care as a recruiting tool.

Public health will continue to be a challenge. Left unchecked, treatment of preventable conditions will eat up more and more of our health spending. But business leaders are uniquely positioned to have a significant impact on the problem at its source. By improving the workplace and encouraging employees to make healthier choices, they can have an impact that spreads far beyond the office walls and into the community at large.

About the Author:

Karen Moseley is vice president of education and director of operations for HERO. She has worked in the non-profit sector for 25 years and has managed the development and dissemination of a number of publications and educational conferences. She received her BS in business from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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