How employers can help curb health care costs and improve productivity through wellness Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2010

The statistics are staggering. Nearly 70 percent of Americans are overweight or obese. Expanding waistlines fuel alarming increases in blood pressure and blood sugar levels, reaching epidemic proportions. The impact of too much weight on health and life expectancy is now equal to if not greater than smoking, says a recent study.

Bad health is bad business. Each overweight employee costs firms an additional $500 to $2,500 in medical expenditures and work loss. That’s a total of $50 billion nationally in annual expenditures related to obesity alone. Chronic diseases like hypertension, high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma and depression are responsible for two-thirds of the increase in health care spending, taking an enormous toll on employees and their families.

As health costs escalate, employers are implementing wellness activities. They understand that prevention can dramatically impact the price of health benefits and productivity of their work force.

To learn more, Smart Business spoke to Tammie Brailsford, Chief Operating Officer of MemorialCare Health System in Orange and Los Angeles counties, and Marcia Manker, Chief Executive Officer of Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley.

Why should employers invest in wellness?

Brailsford: The work force is as critical to your bottom line as the quality of your products and services. Wellness programs reduce costs and help recruit, retain and increase productivity. Research shows companies implementing wellness activities can save $1.49 to $4.91 for each dollar spent and reduce absences 30 percent. A University of Michigan study revealed the health care cost of a 45- to 54-year-old at low risk for health problems is $2,081. A high-risk worker’s cost is $5,813, not including absences, loss in productivity and other expenses.

With the economic downturn, how can I afford to offer these activities?

Manker: Business cost 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. Hospitals are willing to share information and resources on low- to no-cost screenings and offer prevention and healthy lifestyle programs at your company and in the community.

Can you describe The Good Life?

Brailsford: Like other health-conscious employers, MemorialCare implemented a comprehensive wellness and prevention program for employees and their families. Called The Good Life, it’s at the heart of our efforts to build a culture of excellence that encourages employees to make healthier daily choices. Our initial focus was on helping to reduce, prevent and manage the most prevalent conditions affecting our employees — high cholesterol and hypertension.

Manker: Our workplace offers walking trails, employee gyms and nutritious, low-calorie cafeteria foods. We serve healthy snacks at events, sponsor wellness fairs, offer online newsletters and tracking tools and also have nonsmoking campuses. Employees can attend yoga classes and join community events like American Heart Association Heart Walk and March of Dimes March for Babies that raise funds for charities while providing healthy exercise.

What’s the impact of these programs?

Brailsford: Our data suggests a mere 2 percent movement from chronic to improved health can save MemorialCare more than $600,000 annually. Good health is central to everyone’s quality of life — at work, home and play. Changing our habits is challenging. But when it comes to managing and preventing chronic conditions, even small changes dramatically affect quality of life. We know a healthy workplace is the foundation for good business.

Where can an employer start?

Manker: Employers should begin with an employee wellness committee to plan their initiatives with guidance from local health professionals. Start with simple screenings to make employees aware of their blood pressure, cholesterol numbers, weight, nutritional habits, smoking 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 the employee’s family to extend healthy habits at home. And partner with every community resource available — from hospitals and public health departments to organizations like the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society and American Lung Association.

Brailsford: Leadership involvement is critical in creating a culture that promotes good health. When leaders demonstrate their participation and committment to wellness, it creates ‘permission’ among employees to join the conversation and build health and wellness behaviors, like activity, into their daily work life. Organizations should celebrate the employees who take advantage of the programs and demonstrate positive lifestyle changes and health benefits. The proof is in the testimonies of employees who seized the opportunity and lost weight, reduced their cholesterol and blood sugar and increased their productivity.

TAMMIE BRAILSFORD is Chief Operating Officer of MemorialCare Health System in Orange and Los Angeles counties. MARCIA MANKER is Chief Executive Officer of Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley. 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.