Eat right, work tight Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2008

Corporate wellness programs emphasize all the things we know we should be doing — eating right, exercising and not smoking. But why, specifically, is it in the employer’s best interest to promote smart eating habits among its employees?

“Productivity, absenteeism, morale, retention, recruiting — all of these things can be linked back to corporate wellness,” says Cheryl A. Houston, Ph.D., RD, LD, associate professor and director of the dietetics program as well as the chairperson of the department of human environmental sciences at Fontbonne University.

“There have been many general studies on the benefits of wellness programs over the last five to 10 years,” Houston says. “One of the key findings is the improvement on absenteeism rates. Companies with organized wellness programs — i.e. weekly supervised exercise — have reported a reduction of 4.8 days of sick time per employee per year. Additionally, one company realized a 68 percent improvement in days lost to disability following the implementation of a rehabilitation program for post-coronary patients.”

Smart Business asked Houston how food fits into the overall wellness picture.

What factors tend to set off poor eating habits among employees?

Stress is probably the No. 1 factor. Today’s workers have a great deal of stress, not only on the job but at home, as well. Many employees are caring for both children and aging parents. The insanity of our schedules makes it difficult to be 100 percent ‘present’ while we are at work. Technology has also created stress. Everyone expects access to you 24-7. Work never really ‘ends’ — or at least our minds are on work well into the night. This is emotionally and physically draining. As a result, people are irritable, getting headaches, suffering from mental confusion and impaired decision-making ability. All of these factors will have many long-term consequences on a person’s health. Good nutrition helps buffer these negative effects.

What can a company do to reduce stress?

Examine your own corporate culture. Do you tell everyone to take a lunch break, but then your managers don’t? Do you give the impression that your top people ‘are at it’ 24-7-365? If so, then you’re not modeling healthy behavior. Another thing you can do is ask your employees how you can help them. For example, maybe you’ve been thinking of offering a smoking cessation program — but only 10 percent of your workers smoke. On the other hand, 80 percent are overweight and would really like resources to help them lose weight. Identify the interest and the risk to tailor your programs appropriately.

How can companies create a healthier environment overall?

Studies show that there are a number of things you can do. Some suggestions are:

  • Offer some type of health education to increase employees’ awareness of health and wellness.

  • Provide a supportive social and physical environment. In his book ‘Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think,’ Brian Wansink, Ph.D., explains how dramatically our environment influences what we eat, how much we eat and how quickly we eat.

  • Provide healthy options. Make sure you have wholesome food on hand at meetings and in the cafeteria, where it should taste good and be priced reasonably.

  • Integrate health into the corporate culture as an element to be valued. Link wellness to employee assistance programs. For example, if someone is dealing with divorce-related stress, help him or her maintain healthy eating habits during the process.

  • Conduct health risk appraisals, which give you tangible information to work with so you can provide the right types of targeted information focused to your employees.

What can an employer do for a person with special nutrition-related needs?

Let’s consider a person living with diabetes. A fluctuating schedule totally disrupts someone who is trying to manage a chronic condition. These employees need some degree of autonomy — the ability to start and stop work on their own — so they can check their blood sugar level when they need to, etc. And they should have a clean, private place to attend to their health needs — not be expected to do so in the company bathroom. The same goes for nursing mothers. Why would they want to risk contaminating their baby’s milk in a public restroom?

How should these efforts be driven through the organization?

Human resources is often thought of first, and that’s a good place to start. But it’s important to know that a wellness program does not have to be expensive; there are many free or low-cost programs available in the community. Universities are always looking for partnership opportunities where students can be brought in to speak, conduct brown-bag luncheons, do screenings, etc., all under supervision while they learn. Students in programs, such as dietetics, occupational and physical therapy, nursing and other related areas, all need these types of real-life experiences. You can also go to Web sites for organizations such as the American Dietetics Association and the American Heart Association, which will help you identify free programs and speakers.

CHERYL A. HOUSTON, Ph.D., RD, LD, is associate professor and director of the dietetics program as well as the chairperson of the