Changes to workplace encourage healthy lifestyle

April 1, 2009

Changing the work environment to encourage healthy eating and added activity encourages employees

At work, obesity-related conditions account for 39 million lost workdays, 239 million restricted activity days, and over 62 million visits to the doctor annually.

Small wonder that stemming the obesity epidemic is a priority public health issue and of great concern to employers searching for ways to bolster employee productivity and reduce healthcare costs. Many employers offer programs targeted at individuals who need to lose weight, programs that include education materials, online behavior change curricula, physical activities programs, reimbursement for fitness and weight management programs, and professional counseling to help workers eat healthy and increase their physical activity. Published studies of such programs show that some of them have modest but significant impact on weight.

But what if employers go one step further? What if they alter the work environment to promote behavior change, encourage healthy eating and promote increased physical activity? In 2004, The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) funded studies of several worksites across the country to test whether such an approach would work. These studies test innovative strategies that are practical, cost-effective, sustainable, and based on strong theoretical underpinnings.

After the first year, researchers found that employees who participated in environmental weight management interventions reduced their blood pressure risk and maintained a steady weight when compared to employees who received only individual-focused interventions. They suggest that even moderate changes to the work environment can have a positive impact on employees' health by reducing at least one health risk and helping the low-risk employees maintain their health status.

At Dow, moderate-level interventions include: providing healthy food choices accompanied by nutritional information in vending machines, cafeterias and at company-sponsored meetings; marked walking paths; signs that encourage healthy eating and physical activity, such as encouraging climbing stairs instead of riding the elevator; and an employee recognition program focused on healthy lifestyles.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) helps companies establish obesity programs. In the spring of 2009, the CDC is planning to launch a Web site called Lean for Life that will guide companies in planning, building, promoting, and evaluating weight management programs. Lean for Life includes a tool to project the cost of obesity-related health effects and expected financial return.

Employers might consider providing incentives to participate in health promotion programs, altering the physical and social work environment to support healthy lifestyles, and working with community-based organizations that provide and promote physical activity and nutritious eating.

Other actions employers can institute include issuing consistent communications from leaders about policies and support for healthy behaviors; providing leaders with training on the importance of employee health (including the economic impact on the company, when appropriate); establishing performance objectives for managers related to workplace health improvement; and granting prizes, awards, and recognition for employees or managers who participate or promote participation in health promotion programs.

These relatively low-cost actions can produce positive health improvements and at the same time potentially achieve cost savings in the form of reduced healthcare spending, lower absenteeism rates, fewer safety incidents, and heightened worker productivity.

Ron Z. Goetzel is director of the Institute for Health and Productivity Studies, a joint venture of Emory University and Thomson Reuters.

Karen J. Tully is a Global Health Services Leader at The Dow Chemical Company.