The cost of health care is crushing. It doesn’t matter if you’re a large corporation, a small business, an employee or self-employed. Nobody is winning. Premiums are up. Out-of-pocket costs are high. And coverage is anything but satisfactory for too many.
Paying for health care is a challenge for employers and employees alike. And sadly, it seems to have become America’s 21st-century emblem of partisanship and politics. But as the stalemate in Washington continues, it’s more imperative now than ever that businesses and employees recognize that we’re all in this together. And we don’t have to wait on our nation’s politicians to take action ourselves.
One thing we can do is create a healthier workforce — which is essential to any long-term health care fix. That means addressing the underlying health behaviors and cultural influences that have enabled preventable — and costly — chronic diseases to run amok in the last 20-plus years. All told, about 40 percent of a person’s health is affected by behavior patterns. Yet, less than three percent of Americans lead healthy lifestyles, and 86 percent of health care spending is for people with one or more chronic conditions.
Fortunately, research also shows that healthy habits do pay off — for both business and worker. Employees who are physically active, for example, have lower health care costs, require less sick leave, and are more productive at work, according to the Institute for Health and Productivity Studies, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Increasing nightly sleep from under six hours to between six and seven could add $226.4 billion to the U.S. economy, the RAND Corporation estimates. And efforts to better manage employee stress with mindfulness training can improve workers’ concentration on the job, interpersonal relationships and sense of well-being.
Workplace environments do have an important influence on America’s health. They’re so important, in fact, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched the CDC Workplace Health Resource Center (WHRC) this past year, an interactive website with free resources to help businesses of all sizes improve the health, safety and well-being of their employees. The website offers evidence-based strategies to help workers become more physically active, a Worksite Health ScoreCard, an Employee Health Assessment and other resources. Other efforts — like the CEO Pledge for Physical Activity, a campaign that encourages every CEO in America to recognize physical activity as an important driver of employee health and business performance — bring home the message that programs to improve workplace well-being must be built on the whole-hearted buy-in of executive leadership to produce meaningful success.
The link between workplace well-being and company performance has become so widely recognized that there’s now a growing trend to invest in worksite health care, led by pioneers in the field like Vermont-based Marathon Health. Bringing behavioral health onsite, along with health coaching, are just two forward-thinking, solution-oriented components of the organization’s innovative health care model to support worker well-being.
Engaging employees who are most likely to benefit from well-being programs — that is, workers with the most health risks — is central to Marathon Health’s approach in its onsite clinics. By supporting these workers in managing their chronic conditions and adopting healthier living habits, Marathon Health finds that more than half of patients across its customer base make progress toward improving their health. They even see reductions in emergency room use and hospital stays. This isn’t surprising. Independent research, after all, shows that workplace disease management programs yield the greatest return on investment
Michele Wong, vice president of operations for Active Wellness, a management company that specializes in fitness and wellness services — including onsite fitness centers — says she started implementing a much more holistic approach to employee wellness with her partners back in the early 2000s but has seen a considerable industry shift toward well-being over the last five years.
More and more, companies are looking at the full experience of the worker, she says.
Active Wellness’s own employee well-being program covers five elements: career, social, financial, physical and community experience. Wong is quick to point out that workplace well-being programs help attract and retain the best talent. She even says that millennials — now the largest segment of the workforce — often expect to have opportunities for exercise readily available and no longer see them as a perk, but as a necessary amenity.
Active Wellness, and service companies like it, often work with their clients on a dual track — keeping the healthy population healthy while helping those already dealing with chronic conditions adopt improved health behaviors and habits.
Creating a supportive, non-judgmental environment is vital to improving engagement in programs, says Wong: “We meet them where they’re ready. Freedom of choice is important, and we ensure that the program fits with the culture of the organization and the needs of the individual.”
Wong predicts that there will be a continued trend toward employee well-being programs that have a higher level of personalization and a supportive workplace design. Engagement will be driven by greater access to everything from traditional fitness offerings to medical services, with an emphasis on providing a positive experience and connecting the continuum of care, she says. Physical fitness will be connected to emotional well-being as more programs address the whole person — mind, body and spirit.
No doubt, after so many years of political debate in the face of escalating costs, the health care pit we find ourselves in feels dark and deep. But ours is a country made up of innovators and problem-solvers. And we cannot wait on Washington.
America’s businesses, and those of us in the workforce, need to take action where and how we can. Creating cultures of health in the workplace — and supporting one another in our efforts to live healthier, more productive, and ultimately happier lives — is something each of us can do.
We must, because ultimately, we’re all in this together.