How Well Are We?

Health is key to happiness.  Almost every day, a news story reports the growing concerns over the state of our health.  Although the US spends more than most industrialized countries on health care, we are far from the healthiest.  A recent World Health Organization (WHO) press release accompanying the World Health Statistics 2012 report paints a picture of growing concern for not just the US, but the world as a whole:

  • One in three adults worldwide has raised blood pressure
  • One in 10 adults has diabetes.
  • Obesity rates doubled between 1980 and 2008 with half a billion people (12% of the world’s population) now considered obese.  Obesity rates exceed 25 percent in the Americas.

How are we countering these increasing health risks? According to a Harvard Medical School publication, only 18 percent of us meet the weekly recommendations for cardiovascular and muscle-strengthening activity (  Similarly, some surveys found that around 75 percent of Americans experience the effects of frequent stress and it is estimated that more than 75 percent of primary care appointments pertain to stress related issues.  The average worker logs more than 50 per week and has added an extra month of labor per year compared to 1970.  This increased time expectation coupled with more accessibility through technology exacerbates the stress on already tired employees and creates more complex work-life balance issues as well.  Obviously, the rise in disease correlates with the increase in stress and a lack of physical activity.  In addition, shifts in the common diet further enhances the chance of disease with increased diets of sugar, salt, and fat.

How big of an issue is it?  The Center for Disease Control (CDC) found that:

  • Workplace alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use costs US companies over $100 billion each year.
  • Up to 40% of industrial fatalities can be linked to alcohol consumption and alcoholism.
  • Job stress is estimated to cost American industry $200-300 billion annually.
  • Approximately 1 million employees are absent on an average workday because of stress related problems.
  • Work injuries cost $121 billion in medical care, lost productivity and wages.
  • At least 100 million workdays are lost each year to lower back pain at a cost to employers of about $20 billion.

Probably the most revealing statistic estimated by the CDC is that more than 75% of employers’ health care costs and productivity losses are related to employee lifestyle choices.  Meaning, the choices we make about diet, exercise, and other habits are three times more important than other factors in estimating health care costs.  These habits form behaviors that lead to accidents as well as disease.  The CDC Total Worker Health Program Compendium 2012 highlights the following general factors for workplace health issues:

  • Workers’ risk of disease is increased by exposure to both occupational hazards and risk-related behaviors.
  • The workers at highest risk for exposure to hazardous working conditions are also those most likely to engage in risk-related health behaviors.
  • Integrating work site health promotion and occupational health and safety may increase program participation and effectiveness for high-risk workers.
  • Integrated occupational health and safety/ work site health promotion efforts additionally may benefit the broader work organization and environment.

As employers, we need healthy employees.  Outside of family or relationship issues, few things distract an employee like health problems.  As we all know, it is hard to be your best when you do not feel your best.  Moreover, the cost of health care continues to rise and in many organizations absorbs half of corporate profit as a percentage.

For most organizations, wellness programs materialized as a primary method to countering these trends and mitigating rising health insurance premium cost.  More than 80 percent of employers with 50 employees or more have some type of wellness program.  They have nearly doubled in the last 20 years.  Moreover, wellness programs offer a strong return on investment with a dollar of investment in saving three in health care costs, according to the Wellness Council of America.

Do wellness programs work? The results from the last 30 years demonstrate the relative success of these programs with offerings a simple as exercise classes, smoking intervention programs, general health and nutrition education, and stress management counseling.  Investment in wellness programs led to improvements in anthropometric measures, health behaviors, life satisfaction indicators, and measures of morbidity and mortality. Although improvement occurred in each category, movement was moderate from one year to the next.  In other words, the programs only changed behaviors over time and through multiple interactions.

What does this tell us?

  • Health cost will continue to rise.
  • Prevention is less expense than treatment.
  • Employers should invest in employee health because it makes good business sense and possesses a strong return on investment.
  • Wellness programs are one of the better methods of changing behaviors that hurt individuals as well as organizations as a whole.
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