Wellness Programs Promote Healthier Lifestyles

Holly J. Culhane SPHR
February 10, 2009 — 1,760 views  
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Sometimes stand-up comics make me cringe as they tend to poke fun at things that are intrinsically tragic - the misfortune of others, war, difficult situations, people with a variety of physical or mental challenges, etc.  One that has been an on-going popular target is the ever-present "fat guy" jokes.  Even Jay Leno, in his nightly monologue, has a running pitch that starts out "just how fat are we getting?" and then he launches into some situation concerning changing services or particular situations focusing on the preponderance of overweight Americans.  However, perhaps this is one of those cases where if "we didn't laugh, we'd cry."  Because the reality is, obesity is certainly no laughing matter - here in the United States or anywhere else. 

Here's something that got my attention:  "The world now has more people who are overweight than hungry."  (SHRM Compensation and Benefits Library, "CEOs Urged: Make Workplace Wellness a Corporate Strategy," February 2007)  I don't know about you, but with all the focus we see on world hunger and starving third-world nations, that one shocked me.  I knew that here in the United States, with our affluence we had a problem with sedentary lifestyles and the obesity that accompanies it.  However, now as other nations around the world become technologically-savvy, they are seeing obesity on the rise as well.  Want some statistics?  "According to the World Health Organization, the United States is the fattest nation, with over half of adults overweight or obese.  But China and India are growing fatter at a faster pace.  By 2015, the number of overweight and obese adults in China and India will grow by 66 percent and 44 percent, respectively."  (SHRM Compensation and Benefits Library, "CEOs Urged: Make Workplace Wellness a Corporate Strategy," February 2007)

Obviously, this is a global problem that is increasing at an alarming rate.  So, why is this a concern, particularly for employers?  The answer is also obvious - obesity, which is itself classified as a chronic disease now, can also lead to additional chronic diseases that adversely affect the workplace with resulting higher health care claims, rising health care costs, absenteeism, etc.

Chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, etc., can often be controlled, or even eliminated, by modifying habits and tailoring lifestyles to recommended health patterns.  "The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 50% of today's health care costs are attributable to health risks that can be modified by lifestyle behaviors such as diet and activity."  (SHRM Knowledge Center, "Wellness Programs: The New Health Value-Add," February 2007)  Today, obesity itself is classified as a chronic disease and health care costs for this population are significantly higher than for people of normal weight.   

Private practice dietitian and ACE certified personal trainer, Tricia Bland, Owner of L.E.A.N. Consulting, affirms, "Obesity is one of the leading causes of preventable deaths in the United States.  There are numerous approaches to manage it, without much success.  Because the cause of obesity is multi-factorial, we need to approach its treatment in the same manner by addressing it with an approach to diet, physical activity, and behavior modification...the key strategies to a lifestyle management approach." 

Okay - so, how do we get people to modify their habits?  Wellness programs may not be the entire answer, but they can certainly help.  Although promoting healthy lifestyles wasn't originally seen as a concern for the workplace, times have changed, especially since "chronic illnesses account for 75 percent of health care spending" (HR News, "More Employers Committing to Wellness Initiatives," July 2008). 

Employers recognize that it's in everyone's best interest to have healthier employees.  Therefore, more organizations are offering various types of benefits strategies aimed at promoting health and wellness, including the use of corporate wellness programs which can include employer-sponsored educational programs.  Ms. Bland commented "these types of programs have been well received and used in a number of companies in the Kern County area."  In fact, "the amount of employers implementing specific wellness programs increased threefold from 2007 to 2008."  (HR News, "Workplace Wellness Programs on the Rise in 2008," May 2008). 

So, just what is a wellness program?  Put simply, it's a program designed to promote healthier lifestyles for employees by offering them information, incentives, and opportunities to make better choices.  Depending on the size of the organization and how long the program has been in place, it can be quite extensive or it can be relatively simple.  However, some key components of most wellness programs include: promoting physical activity, disease management programs, health risk appraisals, biometric screening, and general health information.  Providing employees with practical tips and access to information is cited by workers as being particularly helpful.  The idea is to teach them to use preventative measures to stay healthy rather than seeing health care as simply a reactive avenue when illness occurs.

To be successful, employers need to build a "culture of health" into the organization by developing a wellness philosophy.  This should be emphasized at all levels, from the CEO on down.  Some measures can include promotion of lunch-time walks around the facilities, healthier choices in company vending machines, assistance programs to cease smoking, fitness center enrollments, guest speakers promoting wellness issues, etc.  Some companies also provide financial incentives for healthy choices, such as cash, gift cards, or even lower health care premiums or deductibles.  The range of activities and incentives varies widely, but all are designed to promote healthy lifestyles - which in turn can lead to healthier bottom lines.

The purpose of wellness programs is to not only reduce the cost of health care and absenteeism, but more importantly to increase longevity and assist employees in leading more productive lives...at work, at home, and at play.

Holly J. Culhane SPHR

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Identified the need for human resource and organizational assistance for small- and medium-sized business­es and formed Profes­sional Administra­tive Systems in 1987. Now known as P A S Associates, this firm combines specialists in the fields of human resources, labor and employment law, affirma­tive action, and substance abuse policies and education, providing an unsurpassed Human Resource Center.