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Ready, set, engage in wellness

Statistics show a rampant rise in obesity and health-related diseases in our culture, yet our largely inactive lifestyles seem to be proof that we’ve not yet motivated ourselves to take action to avoid the onset of health-related calamities—and their associated losses.

Until wellness initiatives become second nature to—and adopted by—everyone, the question remains: Whose responsibility it is to promote healthy lifestyles?

The benefits of workplace wellness programs seem evident: fewer employees with preventable disease states, decreased absenteeism, higher rates of productivity and perhaps even lower costs to maintain health benefits programs. However, while it may be possible to lead an employee to the gym, can you make him put down his cigarette and Boston Cream, and get on the treadmill?

The American model of some employee engagement programs seems to be rather draconian: “You WILL lose weight and stop smoking or your health benefits program may (in some way) be compromised.” However, rewarding the behaviour you are trying to achieve (carrots laced with honey) may be a better model, particularly if company management not only initiate and support wellness and fitness programs, but also actively lead by example. Role models and peer pressure can be a very positive thing.

When assessing your workplace wellness program, begin with the end in mind—think of the desired outcomes you are trying to achieve as a plan sponsor. Is there is a burgeoning health problem in your company? Are there notable increases in employee absenteeism? Are health-related drug claims increasing? What types of drugs are being prescribed within your plan at an increasing (and perhaps alarming) rate? What is the demographic profile of your firm, and is it changing? The answers to these questions could help you to determine if your staff has become sedentary and/or out of balance in their work/life pursuits.

The desired outcomes of your program may include a decreased number of member-hours lost on the job, lower drug and healthcare costs, shifts in plan costs from drug and reactive treatments to more proactive investments in health, as well as a staff charged with more energy and vitality.

All of this may seem pretty daunting, so let’s start small: nutrition. Consider only the matter of diet and available food choices. Have you become an enabler, or do you empower you members by providing healthy alternatives in lunchrooms and vending machines? What menu choices are made when catering internal and external meetings? The easy route is to abdicate the responsibility of making these food choices to a vending or food services company, but that could result in machines stocked with fat, sugar and salt aplenty, or business meetings where catering is always delivered on the back of a scooter.

A benefits consulting firm in Stoney Creek, ON, has gone so far as to hire a full-time chef to ensure only healthy meal and snack alternatives are made available to its staff and guests. A full lunch and snack menu is prepared with fresh grocery items purchased daily to help keep company morale, vitality and productivity at the highest levels possible. What’s on your menu today?

As this is written, Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York City is actively promoting a city-wide regulation prohibiting the sale of soda in containers larger than 16 fluid ounces (approximately 473 millilitres). This is a personally motivated project for the mayor, as he is dedicated to fighting the increasing rates of obesity in adults and children, the rampantly rising costs of healthcare in his city and the near runaway rates of adult onset diabetes. However, an intense and well-funded lobby by companies such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo has mobilized to defeat Mayor Bloomberg’s plans. The mayor’s plans seem to be very similar to decisions made throughout many Canadian public school boards to remove soda and junk food from subsidized cafeterias—albeit, on a much grander scale.

To make their own wellness changes happen, plan members would need to be engaged in a confidential and respectful dialogue that includes their needs and concerns in creating the final plan. Hiring a professional wellness services provider that includes certified dietitians would help to facilitate making healthier choices, perhaps by providing diet planning and weight loss counselling to plan members. Some consideration might be given to tying weight loss and lowered blood pressure and cholesterol levels to increases in pay packages or other personal rewards. If the goal is to motivate employees to take these positive steps to self-improvement, while at the same time lowering drug costs, reducing absenteeism and increasing company productivity, then the dollars invested will certainly provide satisfactory returns on investment.

The decision to act as enabler or paternalist, or to remain dispassionate and removed from the situation remains the plan sponsor’s, but it is at the heart of determining the nature of the social contract the sponsor has with its employees. This is by no means easy, and an analysis of your employees’ dietary habits and health conditions is just one issue in designing a sustainable wellness program. But you have to start somewhere, and even the smallest changes in the kitchen can yield huge results.

This article was written by Bob Carter  and published in Benefits Canada.

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