Faced with rising health care costs and a loss of productivity many employers are offering end of the year bonuses to employees who accomplish healthy lifestyle goals. Several employers are now providing health club memberships (some companies have in-house workout facilities with on-staff personal trainers) and even pay for stop smoking classes as part of an employees benefits package. To sweeten the year-end bonus some companies are now paying for tropical island trips or awarding cash for employees who lose weight or stop smoking.
Now, before those of you who smoke or carry around a few extra pounds take offense consider these alarming statistics:
According to the Centers for Disease Control in 2005 obese employees cost U.S. companies $67 billion in lost productivity. Studies show that smokers use health care, in particular hospitals, 50% more than nonsmokers and smokers average 50% more absences than nonsmokers. Smokers also use 30 minutes more of break time than nonsmokers during the workday and a smoker is 70 percent more likely to die during their working years than a nonsmoker.
Since weight is considered personal and a sensitive issue employers must tread carefully when creating healthy lifestyle incentives for their employees. But an improved bottom line resulting in encouraging employees to lose weight, get in shape and quit smoking has many companies looking past the sensitivity of these issues.
Experts say that peer pressure is the most successful method in staying with an exercise program, losing weight and kicking the habit.
When employers create a positive program in the workplace, where employees serve as encouragers to one another, the success is much greater, said Sarah McDonald, with the Society for Human Resource Management. The benefits are twofold. Employees who are fit and healthy are more productive; more alert, miss less work and usually have better attitudes. Everyone wins and what person doesnt want to be healthier?
The National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation conducted a 10-year study on obesity in the United States and released a 56-page report in May of 2005. The U.S. took the gold medal for that nation with highest rate of obesity among its citizenry. Approximately 119 million Americans, or 64.5 percent, of adult Americans are either overweight or obese.
Michigan has the sixth highest rate of adult obesity among states, with over 25% of Michiganders packing an unhealthy amount of poundage. The study also found that 62% of all Michigan residents are overweight.
Health experts see a direct correlation between obesity and visits to doctor offices, which means higher health care costs for employers as well as missed work resulting in lost productivity. According to medical research a large percentage (some studies show that number at 70%) of visits to the doctor are often preventable by lifestyle changes.
Obesity is a gateway to heart disease, diabetes and a host of other diseases, said Parris N. Glendening, former two-term Governor of Maryland, and president of the Smart Growth Leadership Institute. There is much more that can be done to help people make healthy choices about nutrition and exercise. More opportunities to participate in physical activity are needed and communities and businesses need to look at this when designing a smart growth plan.
The biggest battle in the obesity crises in the country stems from the personal nature of the issue. The freedom of individual choice versus the government or for that matter an employer dictating food consumption and other personal choices such as smoking and alcohol consumption is what is at debate here. Does my employer have the right to encourage me to lose weight, quit smoking and start exercising?
The answer will inevitably be found in the bottom line of the corporate pocket- book as well as the employees. Health care insurance experts predict in 2006 companies will see their health care expense increase as much as 30% and if current trends continue those increases will be passed onto employees. So many companies see developing healthy lifestyle incentives as mutually beneficial.
ON THE DOWNSIDE
Like with anything new there are downsides, the risk of lawsuits as well as potentially rewarding unhealthy behavior such as employees losing too much weight. Another consideration is where does the employee who works out daily and is already at a healthy weight fit into the incentive equation?
Despite these challenges human resource experts see companies regardless of their size exploring healthy lifestyle incentives in the future.
Sometimes it is easier to develop a program at a smaller business, where the employees all know each other and often do things together outside the workplace, said McDonald. There are simple things that can be done, such as a walking lunch where employees use part of their lunch hour to take walks together. Other companies are developing an afternoon break where employees do yoga for 30 minutes.
McDonald also encourages employees to initiate the conversation with their employers on developing an incentive program.
When the boss or owner hears it from the staff that they want to do something as a group to improve productivity and morale, they are willing to at least listen, said McDonald. Even if your employer is not willing to develop a program that doesnt prevent employees from getting together and doing something to improve their health. We are a helpful society, we love to help each other, so be brave and tell your fellow workers you need to lose weight, or want to quit smoking. You will be amazed at how quickly ideas will come and a how a group of employees will come together to encourage each other.
I think that the medical community has made it very clear to us that poor nutrition, obesity, smoking and over consumption of alcohol are at the root of a majority of illnesses in this country, McDonald added. Work is an essential part of life and where most of us spend about one-third of our time at, so I think it makes sense that companies take a lead role encouraging their employees to become healthier.
Here are a few tips to get on the healthy lifestyle track:
1) See a Doctor First: Healthcare professionals recommend that before anyone embarks in making major lifestyle changes they visit their doctor first. Have a complete medical physical and discuss with their doctor planned weight loss, dietary changes and plans to quit smoking.
2) Try Walking: All exercise experts recommend moving gradually into exercise programs and walking is the best way (one friend lost 35 pounds in one year by walking around the Traverse City Civic Center every day during his lunch hour).
3) Eliminate the All You Can Eat mindset: Stay away from the all-you-can-eat buffet. Overeating is common and easy to do. Fad diets often dont work and research shows that often those who try, end up gaining more weight. If overeating is a challenge visit with a nutritionist and develop a program that works for you. For self starters a simple way is with portion control, start by cutting back on the size of your portions, so if you are having
16 ounces of beef and 10 ounces of mashed potatoes with your dinner, cut back by
4 ounces on each dish.
4) Help from Employers: For any business looking to help to develop a healthy lifestyle incentive program start with doing your homework. Toss the idea around with your employees and get their feedback. Read the latest study from CCA Strategies (an innovative consulting firm on the cutting edge of creative workplace initiatives) that details the pros and cons on developing such a program. The study may be found at their website: http://insight.ccastrategies.com/Insight/Documents/IncentivesArticle.aspx