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Employers save money with wellness programs

Employers have spent years trying to manage rapidly increasing health care costs. Today, employers are facing the potential for even greater health claims costs as we experience increased rates of illness and chronic conditions, and younger individuals enter the work force less healthy than in previous generations.

For most employers, chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, obesity, arthritis and diabetes are among the most prevalent, costly and preventable of all health problems. If not prevented or controlled, chronic conditions can lead to costly emergency room visits and hospitalizations, surgeries, complications and the onset of other related diseases.

Direct expenses involve the costs of medical and pharmaceutical claims. However, the indirect costs of poor health have been found to be higher than direct medical costs. Absenteeism, disability and presenteeism are among the issues that contribute to these costs.

Presenteeism, or attending work while unhealthy, results in decreased productivity, exhaustion and future medical absences, and has been estimated to account for one-fifth to three-fifths of employer health care costs. Productivity losses related to personal and family health problems cost U.S. employers $1,685 per employee per year, or $225.8 billion annually.

In order to combat both rising health care costs and improve the health and productivity of employees, many organizations have developed workplace health programs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define workplace health programs as a coordinated, comprehensive set of strategies with programs, policies, benefits, environmental supports and links to the community designed to meet the health and safety needs of all employees. The employer provides educational resources and wellness programs. The goal is to help healthy individuals maintain, at-risk individuals improve and ill individuals manage their health.

Examples of some components of worksite health programs include:

  • Health screenings that include lab work, blood pressure, weight, and body mass index measurements
  • Health risk assessments that provide individuals with an evaluation of their health risks and offer feedback regarding interventions for maintaining or improving their health.
  • Health improvement programs such as disease and case management.
  • Employee health insurance coverage for appropriate preventive screenings.
  • Tobacco-free campus policy coupled with employer-paid tobacco cessation programs and quit-smoking medications.
  • Nutrition counseling/education, menu labeling on healthy foods, healthy foods in cafeterias and vending, weight management counseling, and worksite farmers market or community supported agriculture shares available to employees.
  •  Disease-specific education classes.
  • Access to on-site or local fitness facilities, physical fitness counseling, walking clubs and flextime policy to allow for physical activity during work hours.

According to a recent study, medical costs are reduced by approximately $3.27 for every dollar spent on workplace wellness programs, and a 1 percent reduction in weight, blood pressure, glucose and cholesterol risk factors would save $83 to $103 annually in medical costs per person.

The workplace and the health of the workers within it are closely linked. On average, Americans working full time spend more than one-third of their day, five days a week at the workplace.

While employers have a responsibility to provide a safe and hazard-free workplace, they also have the opportunity to provide their employees with the resources to improve their health, which will lead to more productive workers and result in lower health care costs. The use of effective workplace programs and policies can reduce health risks and improve the quality of life for American workers.

This article was written by Tara Callaghan and published in Missoulian.com.

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