Employee Wellness: Beyond 9-to-5

February 11, 2013

BCLC's health and wellness blog contributor Jeff Levi from the Trust for America's Health talks about how workplace wellness programs reach beyond the workplace and into the community. He goes on to talk about how the success of improving the health of communities must involve a wide range of partners – businesses, local chambers, local government, hospitals, faith based organizations,  etc.

For every workplace wellness dollar spent, health care costs fall by about $3.27, productivity increases, and absenteeism costs fall by around $2.37.[i]  With this knowledge, more and more employers have become aware of the benefits of providing workplace wellness programs. In fact, more than 90 percent of large employers and more than 60 percent of smaller employers offer at least one wellness benefit.

But at-work wellness programs can only go so far. The health of employees – and their dependents – is largely affected by factors outside the workplace. Where people live (do they have access to safe places to exercise or fresh, affordable produce), learn (do schools offer physical and health education and healthy lunches), and play (can children ride their bikes or walk in their neighborhoods safely) all have an impact on how healthy a person can be.

While the outside world plays an integral role in health, businesses have the power to help support employees and their families away from the 9-to-5 world. In turn, employers will have healthier, happier employees, a healthier future workforce and lower health care costs. 

The Trust for America’s Health (TFAH), recently released a new policy report, A Healthier America 2013: Strategies to Move from Sick Care to Health Care in Four Years, which outlines how a range of partners, including businesses, can work together to improve health. The report recommends all employers provide effective, evidence-based wellness opportunities and that businesses be involved in promoting the overall health of their communities.

For instance, in Akron, Ohio, the local Chamber of Commerce, a range of large and small businesses, the public health department, major hospitals and health care providers, universities, housing groups, transportation groups, economic developers and planners, a range of faith-based organizations and many others have partnered together with the Austen BioInnovation Institute to look for ways to improve the vitality of the community. This strong coalition came together around one key fact: high rates of chronic disease and related health care costs were a major concern. The solution: more than 70 employers and organizations launched the first-of-its kind Accountable Care Community (ACC) in 2011. 

The ACC is focused on improving the health of the community and incentivizing the health care system to reward improved health while delivering cost effective care. As with any important endeavor, stringent accountability was included in the work: Success is measured by improved health of the whole community, cost effectiveness and cost savings in the health care system, improved patient experience for those using the health care system and job creation in Akron. 

In just 18 months, the ACC has reduced the average cost of care for individuals with type 2 diabetes by more than 10 percent per month over 18 months with an estimated program savings of $3,185 per person per year.  This initiative led to a decrease in diabetes-related emergency department visits, which ensures more people are healthy and productive. Akron is a healthier place with lower health care costs because of the ACC, and has a more vibrant and productive workforce. 

Akron is not alone in forging a diverse coalition to focus on expansive health problems facing a community. The Alliance for a Healthier Minnesota is a unique partnership between a number of major employers, including Target, Cargill, Medica, the Midwest Dairy Council, the Minnesota Department of Health, and others.

The initiative believes “that when we work together and provide the right tools for prevention, we can help Minnesotans live longer, healthier lives. The group believes employers can drive true healthcare reform through health and wellness campaigns, and in working together for the common good. The Alliance believes healthier communities will make for healthier people, healthier corporations and healthier economies.” This employer-focused collaboration supports major education and prevention programs, including a Healthier Minnesota Challenge.  Since 2010, Challenge participants exercised a total of 52,705,242 minutes and lost 133,777 pounds. In 2012 alone, participants took 1,610,427,079 steps.

Across the country, the Blue Cross Blue Shield companies, which, as employers but also insurance providers, acutely understand the value of prevention, are involved in partnerships to promote wellness through programs tailored to meet the specific needs of a range of communities. For instance, they have partnered with public health departments and community organizations to launch a Healthy Kids, Health Families initiative, focusing on nutrition education, physical activity, managing and preventing disease and supporting safe environments with the goal of improving the health and wellness of more than one million children over the next three years in Illinois, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. When a child is healthy, a parent takes less time off work for doctor’s appointments and care and is more focused while at work.

In Iowa, they support a Blue Zones Project, targeted at communities to implement systematic environmental change to optimize the healthy choices where people live, learn, work and play. And, in North Carolina, they launched Nourishing North Carolina, a statewide community gardening program that makes locally grown, healthy food more accessible to employees and communities across the state. 

Clearly, private employers — regardless of their size — can provide effective, evidence-based wellness opportunities for their employees. But that is only one step in the direction of ensuring employees and their families are healthy, happy and productive.

To obtain an even better return on wellness investments, businesses should partner with government, hospitals and community-based organizations to offer wellness programs throughout communities.

Prevention delivers real value as a cost-effective way to keep Americans healthy and improve their quality of life. It is common sense that improving the health of communities must involve a wide range of partners – including businesses – to be successful. And, everyone wins when we prevent disease rather than treating people after they get sick. Health care costs go down, our local neighborhoods are healthier and provide more economic opportunity, and people live longer, healthier, happier lives.