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Small changes in workplace wellness can lead to big results

Thursday, Dec 1, 2011

Tom Uustal

Many employers I meet with are anxious to reduce health care costs and ask me why prices are continually climbing. Unfortunately, a big reason for the increase is the poor health of Tennessee’s population. This leads to higher use of medical services and prescription drugs — causing costs to rise across the state.

Our state is in the bottom five for overall health, with a high percentage of smokers and an ever increasing percentage of obese residents.

It is estimated obesity and its related conditions cost companies more than $13 billion annually in medical expenses and lost productivity. This includes an estimated 39 million lost workdays and nearly 62 million visits to physician offices. Research indicates for every $1 spent on worksite health and wellness, companies can save $3-$15 within 18 months of starting a program.

Even for small businesses, there are wellness program options that can help you stay competitive by controlling costs and helping you compete when it comes to recruiting the best talent.

As an employer, you may be surprised at the influence you can have on your employees’ routines and decision making. Improving the health of your employees helps you in two significant ways. One, healthier employees equal reduced use of health care and that results in controlled premium costs for your businesses. Secondly, there is the often overlooked issue of productivity. Your employees may be at work, but if they are unhealthy they probably aren’t really getting much done. Improving health reduces presenteeism — when employees are showing up but are actually sick. On the other hand, healthy employees are not just showing up, they are engaged, active and productive. Bottom line: less sick days equals cost savings for the employer.

The first thing I ask an employer when they talk to me about a wellness program is, are you ready to make a change? If the leaders of a company aren’t really invested, then employees are going to see that and the program will not generate results. If however, they are ready to invest some time and energy into the program, then here are a few low cost things they can do to get started.

1. Start a walking program. You don’t need a gym or any equipment to get started. Set an example for your employees by doing the walking yourself and get a program in place that’s manageable and rewards employees. For example, set a reasonable goal. When employees meet the goal, they are entered to win a gift card. If you have hourly employees, offer an extra 15 minute break to those willing to spend it walking around the block or circling the warehouse.

2. Talk to your insurer. BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, along with other major insurers, offers free tool kits for small companies. The kit includes information sheets, wellness posters and envelope stuffers that can easily be printed in-house. The instructions will help you start a workplace wellness program that focuses on weight loss, stress management and tobacco cessation. You can also talk to your insurer about a health risk assessment or on-site screenings for employees to test BMI, blood sugar levels and signs of pre-diabetes.

3. Learn it over lunch. Invite employees to bring their lunch and make sure your company’s leadership participates. Ask your local YMCA to do a presentation about exercise. A local pharmacist may be willing to talk to employees about the importance of taking prescribed medications in combination with exercise and healthy eating. A physicians group can be a resource for healthy weight loss, and a chiropractor may be willing to discuss the importance of posture and stretching for those that sit at a desk all day.

4. Provide better options. Take health into account when catering a meal for employees and include healthy options. You can even ask for healthier options to be included in vending machines at your facility.

5. Communicate your goals. Make sure your employees understand why the program is being implemented and get their feedback on what tools and resources they would find helpful. Stress this is not just about controlling health care costs but also providing a positive workplace and better overall quality of life for employees and their families.

6. Find a champion. Always take the time to recognize and celebrate your employees’ small successes. You can feature a success story in your e-newsletter or publicly congratulate someone at a meeting.

7. Make it personal. Share your own goals for health and wellness and the challenges you face.

Why does this work? Preventable health conditions make up 80 percent of the burden of illness and 90 percent of the cost of all health care. By making small changes, you and your employees can have a big impact on the health and wellness of not only your workplace but on our state as a whole.

Tom Uustal is the vice president of major and national accounts at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. BlueCross BlueShield is an independent licensee of the BlueCross BlueShield Association.

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