No one can dispute the importance of health, which Merriam-Webster defines as “the condition of being sound in body, mind or spirit; especially: free from disease or pain.” (1) The World Health Organization takes the definition a step further: “a state of complete physical, mental or social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” (2)
While individuals need to take primary responsibility for their own health, many employers are recognizing the importance of investing in workplace health promotion programs. Improving employee health not only makes workers more productive, it also makes the workplace safer—a safe workplace depends not only on a healthy safety program, but also on healthy workers—and improves the organization’s financial health.
With more than 130 million people employed in the US, workplaces and the federal government are the nation’s largest purchasers of healthcare through employer health insurance plans (3). In 2009, the total spent on healthcare in the US (including private health insurance plans) grew to $2.5 trillion ($8,086 per person), and employers’ share of the bill came to over $10 billion (4). As health conditions such as obesity and heart disease escalate, so do healthcare costs. The seriousness of these conditions and the magnitude of their costs underscore the need for employers to provide workplace programs that improve employee health and fitness levels.
Employers and employees have additional incentive for partnering in this effort: workplace health promotion programs can succeed. Many diseases have modifiable risk factors such as smoking, obesity, lack of physical activity, high cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and the development of adult onset (type 2) diabetes (3). The majority of us can modify our behavior to reduce or eliminate these factors and significantly decrease our chances of getting the associated diseases.
The particular risk factors mentioned above are the major factors in developing cardiovascular (heart) disease and stroke. Those medical conditions are not only the leading causes of death in the US; they also make up a huge portion of healthcare costs. In 2010, heart disease expenditures were $304.6 billion, while the US spent $73.7 billion on strokes (6).
Looking at these two serious medical conditions and their associated costs helps us understand why employers who provide healthcare coverage have increased the employee portion of cost sharing. It is interesting to note that since 1999, employee healthcare cost have increased by 148% while wages for the same time period increased by only 33% according to a 2007 Towers Perrin Healthcare Cost Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Benefits (5).
Employers who need proof that workplace health and wellness programs are effective can look to the American Heart Association’s journal, Circulation, which states that “worksite wellness programs have been proven to prevent [the] major risk factors … for heart disease and stroke (3)”.
Given the spiraling costs of employee healthcare and the known benefits of workplace health promotion programs, any employer who has not yet considered the addition of a wellness program may be missing an excellent opportunity to better the lives of employees while improving their bottom line.
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