How employers can impact both employee wellness and health care costs Featured

3:57pm EDT March 1, 2011
How employers can impact both employee wellness and health care costs

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 costs of health care and encourage healthier lifestyles, employers are adding and expanding wellness programs.

To learn more, Smart Business turned to Tammie Brailsford, chief operating officer of MemorialCare Health System in Southern California.

Why should businesses invest in wellness?

There are many benefits that arise from worksite wellness, from reducing absenteeism, health care and workers’ compensation costs to improving employee health, morale and productivity.

A University of Michigan study revealed health care costs for a high-risk worker are three times that of a low-risk employee. The American Institute of Preventive Medicine reports that 87.5 percent of health claim costs are due to lifestyle. Companies that implement wellness activities can save from $3.48 to $5.42 for every dollar spent and can reduce absences 30 percent.

What’s 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 work loss and medical care for a national total of $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, asthma, diabetes and depression are responsible for two-thirds of the total increase in health care spending and take an enormous toll on employees and their families.

To help address this issue, at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center and at the Miller Children’s Hospital, we offer cash rewards for healthy weight loss through a program emphasizing nutrition, exercise and lifestyle changes leading to life-long healthy weight.

How can companies afford to offer these activities?

Costs can be minimal — from $50 to $500 or more per employee annually, plus any 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 or taking stairs or a 10-minute break to walk.

Leadership involvement is critical to the success of any activities. 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.

Can you describe The Good Life?

This program is at the heart of our efforts to build a culture of excellence that will encourage employees to make healthier daily choices and improve their overall health. Initiatives include exercise classes, walking challenges, nutritious cafeteria food, weight reduction programs, smoke-free campuses, newsletters, work-life balance programs, healthy employee activity days  and more.

Other innovations include managers who take walking rather than sitting meetings and installing both Wii sports stations to encourage active rather than sedentary breaks and walking workstations, which allow talking on the phone and working on the computer while simultaneously walking on a treadmill.

This year, our employees also may receive paycheck incentives by participating in the confidential health assessments that help identify opportunities to improve health by setting and achieving personal goals. In January alone, over 1,400 staff accessed an online health risk assessment and more than 1,200 scheduled a personal biometric screening.

What outcomes have you experienced?

Our data suggests that a mere 2 percent movement from chronic to improved health can save MemorialCare more than $600,000 annually. During just a 17-week period, employees participating in work-based weight reduction programs lost a combined total of 1,248 pounds. Weight loss of as little as 5 to 10 percent can significantly impact blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar. For every pound that’s lost by those overweight, there is a 4-pound reduction in knee-joint stress load. That’s almost 5,000 pounds less stress on one group of employees’ knees.

Where can an employer start?

Start with an employee wellness committee to plan your initiatives with guidance from health care professionals. Begin with simple screenings to help make employees aware of their blood pressure, cholesterol numbers, weight, 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 community resources like hospitals, public health and local heart, cancer and lung associations.

MemorialCare hospitals help employers with information and resources on low- to no-cost screenings, prevention and healthy lifestyle sessions at their company and in the community. Memorialcare.org provides a number of online health risk assessments and wellness tips on the journey to better health.

Tammie Brailsford is the chief operating officer of MemorialCare Health System in Southern California. The not-for-profit MemorialCare Health System includes Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, Miller Children’s 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 memorialcare.org.