Integrated programs Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2007

When it comes to developing and maintaining reliable and healthy employees, some companies have become accustomed to focusing on treating diseases rather than rewarding health.

Absenteeism is not uncommon in today’s work force. Worse, some employees bring their health and personal problems to the work place, which may impair the quality of their work and reduce their productivity. If the problems started at work, it can be even worse. All it takes to damage a company’s image is one disgruntled employee, points out Moshe Torem, M.D., from the Akron General Health and Wellness Center.

Torem says one way to overcome the problem is with an integrative medicine program — one that stresses wellness instead of being limited to the diagnosis and treatment of diseases.

Smart Business asked Torem what can be done in a workplace to move employees in a new direction.

Employees do miss work because they are sick, right?

Yes, but some of the major causes of workplace difficulties are nondisease-related issues, such as smoking, excessive drinking, lack of sleep, stress from home or the workplace, unhealthy eating habits, and the lack of an effective social support system. Plus, there are illnesses caused by stress, chronic sleep deprivation and unhealthy eating.

Any business wants a healthy and reliable group of employees that can be counted on to do their jobs. It is well known that stress impairs the immune system. If the immune system of an individual is suppressed, they will be more susceptible to infections. An employee who does not have a good relationship with a spouse, one who feels exploited or misunderstood at work, or one who feels bossed around unfairly, may develop resentment and react against the workplace in a passive way. Even if such employees show up to work, the quality and productivity of their work will suffer. They also may call in sick more frequently.

How is an integrative medicine program different from the usual doctor visit?

Integrative medicine combines self-education and awareness, promotion of self-healing and the maintenance of one’s health. It asks managers to encourage and promote an atmosphere that is conducive to a loyal, productive work force. It teaches managers communications skills, such as effective listening and making employees feel they are valuable and appreciated members of a team.

What would be the cost of such a program?

The upfront cost must be considered in reference to the potential savings in the overall spending on health care. The payoff to the company is tremendous: People will show up for work more regularly, do a better job, and will be more loyal. The bottom line for the company may see an overall savings in the total sum of the benefit/cost ratio. Health insurance claims should drop.

You have to start with a work environment that shows the employees that the company cares about them. Many first-line employees feel they know better than anyone else how to make their jobs more productive. Effectively listening to their ideas will improve employee satisfaction and increase productivity. An angry, resentful employee may cause a lot of damage.

How realistic is this to implement?

Years ago, it was common for businesses to give employees a ‘smoke break.’ Many took 15 to 20 minutes a couple of times a day to smoke a cigarette. The new no-smoking laws today are great. However, employees still need to take a break to improve productivity. Companies can give their employees 20-minute ‘health breaks’ to take a walk, exercise, meditate, or do yoga or guided imagery.

Let the employees recharge their batteries and come back to work re-energized and refocused.

What else can a company do?

Business leaders need to make a paradigm shift, realizing that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. We all know alcohol and drugs are a common workplace problem. Another huge problem is chronically overweight workers. Obesity may result in lower productivity and higher absenteeism as employees contract diabetes and high blood pressure, and become more vulnerable to developing heart disease and strokes.

Companies can set up programs to encourage employees to maintain healthy weight. For example, when employees drop weight to a healthy range and maintain it, they will be rewarded.

I’d recommend engaging all workers in a health promotion and maintenance program. A point system can be established for achieving individual goals, whether for body weight, healthy habits, smoking cessation, avoiding abuse of alcohol and drugs, or for regular exercise and practicing stress management. When employees earned enough points, they would be rewarded. Today’s system pays employees when they are sick, but should reward them for maintaining good health.

MOSHE TOREM, M.D., is a physician, board-certified in psychiatry. He is medical director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at Akron General's Health and Wellness Center in Montrose. Dr. Torem received his M.D. from the Hebrew University School of Medicine. He is a professor of psychiatry at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine. Dr. Torem was recently appointed as chief of the integrative medicine service at Akron General Medical Center. For more information, visit www.agmc.org.