Employee wellness benefits employers’ bottom line

How to help employees stay healthy and avoid both ‘presenteeism’ and absenteeism in the workplace

Cyndie Meyer

Are your employees plagued by ‘presenteeism?’ Harvard Business Review defines this term as underperformance at work due to stress or illness. According to the Review, ‘presenteeism’ is no small problem: The loss of health-related productivity actually dwarfs the cost of health insurance.

Depression, anxiety, migraines, respiratory illnesses, arthritis, diabetes and back and neck pain are the most frequent causes of lost productivity, and employees with multiple chronic conditions are especially vulnerable to productivity loss.

Chronic diseases and conditions – such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease – are also among the most costly and common health problems in the United States today. They not only impact productivity, they also account for four-fifths of healthcare spending and cause 70 percent of deaths.

The good news? Chronic diseases and conditions are the most preventable of disorders. Regular physical activity, stress reduction, healthy eating and tobacco and excessive alcohol avoidance are keys to a long and healthy life.

At Kaiser Permanente, which serves as an employer, healthcare provider and health plan, there is strong support for carrying the prevention message into the workplace.

“Employees spend many hours with their employers each week, so the culture we create at work can make or break their efforts to be healthy,” said Keith Bachman, a physician at Kaiser Permanente who specializes in worksite wellness. “[Employers] have a unique opportunity to be change agents when it comes to supporting healthy lifestyles.”

American workers spend a third of their lives at work. To help them stay healthy and avoid both ‘presenteeism’ and absenteeism, employers can:

  • Establish programs for exercise during the workday such as yoga, tai chi, or walking groups
  • Provide on-site exercise equipment or reduced-price memberships to health clubs
  • Implement a no-smoking campus policy and provide resources for tobacco cessation
  • Encourage personnel to take the stairs or engage in walking meetings
  • Ensure that healthy options are available in the cafeteria and vending machines
  • Institute a healthy meeting policy that calls for healthier food and stretch breaks
  • Incentivize participation in healthy behaviors
  • Provide confidential counseling and mental health services
  • Encourage cancer screening and health assessment

It sounds good in theory, but does worksite wellness impact the bottom line? In 2012, a review article in the American Journal of Nursing reported that five of eight wellness programs studied demonstrated a return on investment between $1.65 and $6 for every dollar invested.

In four studies, the estimated cost savings of worksite wellness programs amounted to $1,350 saved per employee in short-term disability costs and a 27 percent reduction in illness days.

Prior to the 1980s, worksite wellness was an uncommon benefit. Today, the majority of large employers offer wellness programs, such as smoking cessation, weight loss or other lifestyle coaching, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation/Health Research & Educational Trust (HRET) 2015 Employer Health Benefits Survey.

“Most employers want a healthy, motivated workforce, but some struggle with the question of how to create a culture of health and may not know how to get a worksite wellness program off the ground,” said Alan Melnick, public health director/health officer at Clark County Public Health. “That’s why Clark County Public Health is partnering with the Vancouver Business Journal, Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center, PeaceHealth Southwest and Kaiser Permanente to start a worksite wellness collaborative for Clark County.”

The Clark County Worksite Wellness Collaborative will kick off on Tuesday, October 18 with a recognition event at Warehouse 23 featuring an address by former King County executive and worksite wellness champion, Ron Sims. The Vancouver Business Journal will announce Southwest Washington’s Healthiest Employers at the event, and quarterly collaborative meetings, open to all Clark County employers, will follow.

“We hope to draw large, medium and small employers together to learn and share ideas that can help us make Clark County one of the country’s healthiest places to work and live,” Melnick said.

Watch for more information in your email and in the VBJ!

Cyndie Meyer is the Chronic Disease Prevention program manager for Clark County Public Health.