How employers can take the lead in improving employee wellness and lowering health care costs

Tammie Brailsford,, RN, Executive Vice President, Chief Operating Officer, MemorialCare Health System

The workplace is where most adults typically spend half of their waking hours and can have a powerful impact on one’s health. Thanks to efforts in engaging employees in workplace wellness, many businesses are promoting healthier lifestyles while also reducing absenteeism, lowering health and workers’ compensation costs and improving employee health, morale and productivity.

To learn more, Smart Business turned to Tammie Brailsford, RN, MemorialCare Health System executive vice president and chief operating officer, whose passion for employee wellness has created an environment of improved health among the system’s 11,000 employees.

Why should businesses invest in wellness?

A healthy work force is the foundation for good business, as critical to your bottom line as the quality of products and services. To stem rising health costs and encourage healthier lifestyles, employers have been adding and expanding wellness programs. A University of Michigan study revealed health costs for a high-risk worker is three times that of a low-risk
employee. American Institute of Preventive Medicine reports 87.5 percent of health claim costs are due to lifestyle. Companies implementing wellness activities save from $3.48 to $5.42 for every dollar spent and
reduce absences 30 percent.

Costs can be minimal — from $50 to $500 or more per employee annually, plus incentives for health improvement. Instead of building a fitness center, offer employees a pedometer, mealtime walking programs and sessions on achieving better health. It’s as simple as selecting a salad, taking stairs or a 10-minute break to walk. Leadership involvement is critical to success. Your participation and engagement create ‘permission’ among employees to join the conversation and build health and wellness behaviors, like activity, into their daily work life.

What is the impact of overweight employees?

With nearly 70 percent of America’s work force overweight, businesses carry an additional $500 to $2,500 per employee in medical care and work loss totaling $50 billion in annual expenditures related to obesity alone. Expanding waistlines fuel increases in blood pressure and blood sugar levels, reaching epidemic proportions. The impact of too much weight on health quality and life expectancy is now equal to if not greater than smoking. Chronic diseases like hypertension, high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma and depression are responsible for two-thirds of the total increase in health care spending, taking an enormous toll on employees and their families.

Can you describe The Good Life?

As a health care system, we want to model a commitment to health and wellness. The Good Life program is at the heart of our efforts to build a culture of excellence that encourages employees to make healthier daily choices and improve their overall health. Initiatives include nutritious on-site food options, walking challenges, exercise classes, walking trails, weight reduction programs, gyms, smoke-free campuses, activity days, newsletters, work-life balance programs and more.

Other innovations include walking rather than sitting meetings, installing Wii sports stations to encourage activity during breaks and walking workstations. The latest evidence shows us that ongoing support of a dedicated onsite health coaching team can help employees with conditions like diabetes and hypertension make important life changes, lessen long-term complications and improve medical outcomes. Employees receive paycheck incentives by participating in confidential health assessments that help identify opportunities to improve health by setting and achieving personal goals. In the last year alone, employees walked 350,000 miles in walking challenges and achieved a combined total of 4,000 pounds in weight reduction.

What outcomes can wellness achieve?

Weight loss of as little as 5-10 percent can significantly impact cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar. For every pound lost by those overweight, there’s a 4-pound reduction in knee-joint stress load. That’s almost 5,000 pounds less stress on one group of employees’ knees. We will gladly share wellness best practices forged in our own programs with other businesses aiming to improve employee health and lower both company and employee health care expenses.

Where can an employer start?

You can begin with an employee wellness committee to plan initiatives with guidance from health professionals. Start with simple screenings to make employees aware of their blood pressure, weight, cholesterol numbers, nutritional habits and fitness levels. Get your work force walking during meals and breaks. Offer sessions that share advice, activities and coaching to reach and maintain goals. Identify employee advocates to motivate others to follow their lead. Engage employees’ families to extend healthy habits at home. Partner with local hospitals and heart, cancer and lung associations.
MemorialCare hospitals can help employers with information and resources on low- to no-cost screenings, prevention and healthy lifestyle sessions at your company as well as in the community. And provides a number of online health risk assessments and wellness tips on the journey to better health.

Tammie Brailsford, RN, is executive vice president and chief operating officer, MemorialCare Health System. The not-for-profit MemorialCare Health System includes Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, Miller Children’s Hospital Long Beach, Community Hospital Long Beach, Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley and Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in Laguna Hills and San Clemente. For additional information on excellence in health care, please visit