Good for Employees, Good for Business

A new survey shows the positive impact of corporate health and wellness programs: They boost employee retention and cut turnover.

IN today's hectic world, most of us are spending more time at work and have increasingly less time to look after our health. For a long time, employers have understood the benefits associated with keeping workers well: increased productivity from reduced absenteeism and lowered disability claims. For these reasons, coupled with the fact that many companies experienced double-digit health care costs last year, companies should consider corporate wellness programs as a way to keep employees healthy.

But just how important are these programs to employees? How often are they willing to participate in programs designed to positively affect their health and wellness? Whom do employees trust to provide them with important information about their health? Answers to these questions and more were found in a recent survey commissioned by the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses Inc.

The survey questioned 500 employees nationwide about their perceptions of corporate wellness programs. More than three-quarters of all participants indicated these programs are a good way to improve their overall health, and nearly 60 percent consider these offerings an incentive to remain with their current employer. Employee retention and turnover affect the bottom line, so building wellness programs into the work-site culture is a valuable way to help retain talented employees, in addition to enhancing personal health and workplace productivity.

Employees' Health Wish List
Employees appear to have their own agenda when it comes to their health. With new pressures resulting from an unstable economy, national security threats, and work/balance issues, it's not surprising that 85 percent of survey respondents cited stress management as a priority topic for work-site wellness. In addition to stress, other preferred topic areas that came to light in the survey include screening programs (84 percent), exercise/physical fitness programs (84 percent), health insurance education (81 percent), and disease management seminars (80 percent).

According to the survey, in addition to lifestyle and personal health issues, respondents expressed concern about work-related health issues, including strains and injuries resulting from lifting or task-oriented muscle repetition, exposure to harmful substances, personal injury, vision changes caused by computer work, and workplace violence.

What's an Employer to Do?
With such a broad range of health concerns, a key goal for employers becomes finding a way to proactively address health needs of the largest number of employees, effectively change unhealthy behaviors, promote wellness, and ward off disease and illness.

Often, printed materials, such as brochures, posters, fliers, or pamphlets, present an easy solution. Yet it is important to remember that different people require different formats for learning. A good rule of thumb is to provide information in a variety of learning formats, such as videos, pamphlets, health-related quizzes, display boards, lunch-and-learn presentations, and reimbursement or incentive programs.

But this assumes you've overcome the first hurdle--getting people to sign on to a wellness program in the first place. While respondents to this survey indicated health and wellness programs are important, just six out of 10 (60 percent) reported that they participated in the wellness programs at their companies. The other 40 percent cited lack of interest and lack of time as deterrents. These challenges point to the need for a comprehensive, structured corporate wellness program using a creative approach, with an incentive for participation and effective program marketing.

Who has the expertise to carry the health and wellness program torch within a corporation? Employers undoubtedly want someone who knows the ins and outs of health promotion, but who also can counsel employees and provide primary care, and all within the context of the current regulatory and legal environment. The survey uncovered the fact that employees also prefer someone knowledgeable about health care to head workplace wellness and health initiatives. In fact, according to the survey, more than half of employees (61 percent) want to receive health and wellness information from a health care professional such as a consultant or an on-site occupational health nurse, compared with pamphlets or brochures (18 percent) or human resources staff (15 percent).

Occupational health nurses (OHNs) are ideal candidates to develop, implement, and evaluate components of work-site wellness programs, such as screening programs, exercise/fitness courses, stress management, smoking cessation, nutrition and weight control programs, as well as chronic illness management programs. In addition, OHNs can be instrumental in helping employees navigate through complicated health plans, and they may even serve as a triage point between employees and their personal health care providers.

Employees may refrain from seeing their health care provider when it means time away from work, inconvenient parking, waiting time in the office, and co-pays. In situations where employees are under treatment for chronic diseases such as heart disease, on-site nurses can routinely monitor risk factors such as blood pressure or cholesterol on a regular basis.

Moreover, it is often easier for an employee to ask an on-site nurse for information about symptoms or prescription medication than it is to schedule a follow-up visit to a personal health care provider. During these discussions, it may come to light that an employee does not understand the nature of an existing condition or why a specific treatment may have been prescribed, or is not following his/her treatment plan appropriately. OHNs can provide helpful information and counsel an employee on his/her condition and why it requires treatment. Benefits realized by employers include enhanced employee morale and retention, a recruitment advantage, increased productivity, and decreased time away from work.

In addition, in companies with a safety department, the OHN can augment the safety program by evaluating and addressing work-related health issues, including participation in workstation evaluations to correct potential ergonomic problems, and proactively addressing muscle strains by developing stretching programs and involving employees in leading stretches. OHNs can assist employers in developing policies for workplace violence, constructing internal response teams, and training programs.

Overcoming the Challenges
AAOHN's survey showed that employees clearly understand the benefits of work-site health and wellness programs, and that they value the workplace as a delivery system for information that will keep them healthy. Employers also realize it is in their best interest to keep their workforce healthy. With so many competing priorities--disease management, prevention, safety considerations, compliance, and disability management programs--it may be challenging to design a program that is most beneficial and achieves the desired result of optimum employee health.

By investing in an organized, structured corporate wellness program headed by a qualified health care professional, companies can give employees the access to the health information they want, while increasing participation and generating interest at the same time. The result: Employees become savvier health care consumers who feel more in charge of their personal health. At the same time, healthier employees make for a healthier bottom line.

This article originally appeared in the July 2003 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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