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What role should worksite health promotion play in today's global economy?

This is an excerpt from Worksite Health Promotion - 3rd Edition by David Chenoweth.

What role should worksite health promotion play in today's global economy? To answer that question, perhaps we should consider some major trends in demographics, technology, and economy over the past 50 years:

  • A substantial portion of the manufacturing (industrial) sector of the economy has been replaced by the service sector.
  • A substantial number of women have entered the workforce, especially in health care and education.
  • The median age of many workforces has increased by as much as 10 years.
  • Most worksites rely on computerized technologies rather than on physical labor.
  • Commuting time to and from work has increased as much as 20%.
  • The percentage of obese adults has more than doubled in some worksites.
  • The percentage of working adults with chronic health conditions is at an all-time high.
  • The average cost of an employer-sponsored health insurance premium for a family of four is around $16,000 per year. In the 1960s, the average cost was less than $1,500.

Collectively, the preceding trends reflect the ubiquitous influence that at-work technologies continue to have on the way in which work is done. Although new technologies certainly generate higher worker productivity in many types of jobs, technology-driven workplaces are often blamed for much of today's physically inactive, obese adult population. After all, millions of workers make their living laboring in front of computerized keyboards in predominantly sedentary jobs. And, considering today's sluggish economic landscape, even a casual observer can see that a day rarely passes without news of an employee layoff, labor strike, corporate takeover, bankruptcy, or plant closing. Although these actions can be traced to a myriad of marketplace factors, one of the most pervasive underlying forces is the relentless and rising cost of health care. Moreover, these troubling costs permeate all sectors of an economy, ranging from individual households to a nation's productivity (gross domestic product, or GDP). For example, health care costs consume approximately 5% of the GDP in China, Russia, and India; about 9% in Japan, Italy, and the United Kingdom; between 10% and 11% in Germany and France; and more than 16% in the United States.

Yet, in some of these nations, employers often pay much higher percentages of their revenues on health care. In the United States, for example, the business portion of the nation's total health care bill has increased from 18% in 1965 to nearly 35% today. Moreover, many companies report that the annual cost of providing employee health benefits is nearly 50% of their business profits (Pronk 2009; Loeppke et al. 1999). One of the most glaring examples of the current problem with health care costs is reflected in a study conducted jointly by the Lewin Group and Families USA. It showed these results over a four-year period:

  1. Average individual wages increased 12.4%, while employees' health care insurance premiums increased nearly 36%.
  2. In 26 states, health care insurance premiums for employees rose more than 40%.
  3. Employer-paid premiums increased an average of 32%.
  4. The number of Americans with personal health care costs exceeding 25% of their earnings rose from 11.6 million to 14.3 million (approximately 1 of every 10 working adults).

Why Businesses Offer Worksite Health Promotion

Treating employees and fellow workers with respect and care is not just the right thing to do, it is also good business. Based on several surveys, the most common reasons given for establishing WHP interventions are reportedly to (1) attract and retain good employees, (2) keep workers healthy, (3) improve employee morale, (4) improve employee productivity, and (5) contain employee health care costs. The underlying justification for these reasons is as follows:

  • Absenteeism. Because one-half of all unscheduled absences in the United States are attributed to minor ailments that are tied to potentially modifiable behaviors, more companies are offering specific types of WHP programs and wellness incentives to their employees. It is interesting that absenteeism and presenteeism (being at work but not performing up to par) are reportedly more compelling reasons for many European companies to initiate WHP initiatives than health care costs are.
  • Accessibility. The workplace is usually a good setting in which to offer educational and motivational programs to many people at one time.
  • Aging workforce. Every 8 seconds, another American turns 50 years of age. As workers age and experience more health problems, more employers are using age-appropriate interventions to slow the effects of the aging process and to detect problems earlier.
  • Business contacts. Health promotion events, such as community health fairs and corporate challenge events, create new business contacts.
  • Competition. Concern about retaining valuable employees is prompting companies to provide financial incentives and other perks that enhance morale and increase retention.
  • Growing interest. Interest in enhancing personal health and containing health care costs is reflected in today's coverage by print and electronic media.
  • Health insurance premiums. Employer-paid health insurance premiums for employees and dependents have doubled in the past decade, therefore jeopardizing organizations' net profits.
  • Image. Many corporate leaders realize that successful WHP programs can boost a company's image among workers, the local community, potential investors, and industry peers.
  • Productivity. Because healthy employees generally outperform unhealthy employees, more companies are offering health promotion programs to achieve greater outcomes.
  • Workers' compensation costs. Up to one-half of all workers' compensation claims involve musculoskeletal strains and sprains. Because the vast majority of strain- and sprain-related injuries are tied to poor fitness levels, numerous worksites are integrating case management related to workers' compensation, work hardening (job-specific stretching and strengthening), and return-to-work protocols into a WHP framework.

Considering all of the preceding benefits that worksites can potentially gain, there is a strong business case to be made for WHP programs. Thus, employers who adopt and sustain an effectively run WHP program are positioned to reap these benefits, cultivating employees that are healthier, more productive, and more consumer oriented.

More Excerpts From Worksite Health Promotion 3rd Edition