Create a strong workplace ‘health culture’

employees exercisingEmployees who believe they work in an organization with a strong “health culture” tend to perceive themselves as healthier and are more likely to change unhealthy behaviors than those whose health cultures seem weak, according to a new study of large employers.

The Consumer Health Mindset study—conducted for Aon Hewitt and the National Business Group on Health—found that most em­­ployees believe that workplace wellness programs help them achieve better health, make them feel better about their employers and are a good business investment.

Yet half of employees who participated in The Consumer Health Mindset study said their organizations only do a so-so job of encouraging healthy employee behaviors, and 19% said their employees have never given the staff’s health and wellness a thought.

Employees reporting those sentiments are more likely to be overweight or obese, the study found.

More than 90% of the 2,732 em­­ployees and dependents who participated in the study said their health is good, up from 87% in the same study last year. But that assessment may be overly optimistic. In fact, nearly 60% of those reporting good health are overweight or obese, the survey reveals.

Book of Company Policies D

Defining ‘healthy’ workplaces

The research report cited these characteristics of a workplace culture of health:

  • Managers encourage employees to incorporate healthy activities into their work day.
  • The organization considers programs and actions that could improve employee health, even if they don’t save money right away.
  • The C-suite is populated with healthy role models and wellness advocates.
  • The organization promotes health by, for example, offering healthy food choices.
  • The company creates opportunities for employees to get healthy together and rewards their health-improving achievements.

Healthy environment matters

Compared with two years ago, more employees believe that working in a healthy environment leads to good health. This is significant, the authors say, because people who perceive that they have little control over their health are unlikely to take steps to improve it.

More than half of employees who describe their workplace health culture as “weak” considered their work environment an obstacle to getting and staying healthy.

Part of the problem, the authors say, is work-related stress. Half of the employees in the survey reported feeling high stress on a regular basis. Besides work, other notable stressors included money worries, personal and family commitments, poor health and family changes.

Employees don’t believe their em­­ployers get it. Most of those polled reported that their employers do not think stress has any impact at all on work quality.

Money talks

Almost a quarter of employees and dependents in the survey say their health depends, in part, on having enough money to pay for the care they need to stay healthy. And those in the study cited affordability as the second-leading obstacle to getting and staying healthy, behind only a lack of time.

The study’s authors call employee concerns about the cost of health care “justified,” citing a 125% hike in employee payroll contributions and out-of-pocket costs since 2004. And in a which-came-first dilemma, almost half of those studied cite finances as the main source of their stress, which, in turn, can cause and exacerbate poor health.

How to promote healthy culture

To create a workplace culture of health and encourage employees to participate in wellness programs, the study authors advise taking these steps:

  • Push managers to support their teams’ efforts to get and stay healthy. The study shows that even in workplaces viewed as healthy, employees don’t neces­sarily think their bosses embrace that culture.
  • Create wellness programs specifically for older workers and women, two groups that are less likely to view their employers as supportive of their health efforts. But don’t neglect young employees. Wellness outreach to young employees may pay great dividends far into the future.
  • Think short-term. Not every employee will be interested in every wellness program, so offer lots of them and change the menu frequently. A 12-week weight loss challenge or a summer fitness program might attract more employees than a traditional, weekly Weight Watchers meeting that has been around forever.
  • Ask employees which programs benefit them most. The answers can help you refine your offerings to encourage greater participation. The Consumer Health Mindset poll found increasing participation in exercise and nutrition programs, while the use of on-site clinics and pharmacies is declining. Almost all employees who participate in nutrition or healthy-eating programs reported improvements in their own or a family member’s health.
  • Make wellness personal. Nearly half of poll participants say wellness programs need to be relevant to them. Make the personal connection by encouraging them to set individual health goals and explaining how wellness offerings might help resolve their specific health problems. Tip: Make wellness a team effort. One of the most common reasons employees give for not participating is that none of their work friends do.
  • Offer financial incentives to participate in wellness programs. It won’t break the bank: The study found that $50 is the price point that will sway most employees to participate. Most employees said they expect some form of incentive to encourage them to join a wellness initiative.


Easy steps to help employees improve their health

Authors of the Consumer Health Mindset survey advise businesses to give their employees opportunities at work to make “small, positive health choices.” Some ideas:

  • Promote drinking water. Rule of thumb: Multiply your weight by 0.67. Someone who weighs 175 pounds should try to drink 117 ounces of water daily.
  • Hang “eat this, not that” posters that show photos of good and bad food choices.
  • Organize cooking classes during lunch hours or after work so em­ployees can learn how to prepare healthy meals in right-size portions.
  • Place stickers on vending machines that reveal how much exercise it would take to burn off the calories in those snacks. Example: Walking the length of a football field burns off just one M&M.
  • Color-code cafeteria food to show employees which dishes are healthy, so-so or unhealthy.
  • Post the artwork of employees’ children in stairwells so people will take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Create a regular column on the company website or employee newsletter offering practical health advice.