It's hard to overestimate the value of healthy workforce. Employees who are mentally and physically well are more productive, less absent from work and feel better about themselves, their jobs and their employers—outcomes that can contribute to the bottom line.
But health insurance premiums and employee medical claims are at an all-time high in the United States and continue to rise. What can employers do to help employees prevent or manage chronic health conditions and avoid the unhealthy behaviors that can contribute to them?
Memorial Hermann Medical Group Pearland family medicine physician Jennifer Ukwu, MD, suggests ways employers can help their employees become and stay healthy.
Ease job stress. According to the CDC, work-related stress is the leading workplace health problem and is a major occupational health risk, ranking above physical inactivity and obesity. And the pandemic has only intensified this stress.
Dr. Ukwu, employed by Memorial Hermann Medical Group, says Memorial Hermann provides employees access to mental health professionals, has offered employees a mental health day and has provided its employees with access to a third-party meditation app, which she says she has found especially helpful.
Encourage movement. According to the American Heart Association, physically active jobs now make up less than 20 percent of the U.S. workforce, down from roughly half of jobs in 1960. And this “sitting disease” is taking its toll. “The effects of a sedentary lifestyle add up,” says Dr. Ukwu. “Sitting for long periods has been associated with increased risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart attack and stroke.”
She suggests encouraging employees to take frequent breaks to move around, encouraging lunchtime walks (and discouraging eating lunch at their desks), offering standing desks to desk-bound employees and providing access to onsite or local fitness facilities.
Educate employees. Dr. Ukwu says many unhealthy behaviors might be prevented by simply educating employees. “Each month represents a different opportunity to educate employees on a different health topic. February is National Heart Month, for instance, and October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Companies can use these national campaigns as a springboard for their own internal awareness campaigns, perhaps inviting local healthcare providers to speak on related topics at employee events. And they can encourage their employees to team up to support local events.”
Encourage preventive care. Unfortunately, many people have let their annual physicals and health screenings lapse during the pandemic. “The first step in managing a health problem is knowing it exists in the first place,” says Dr. Ukwu. “Every employee should know their numbers, including their body mass index (BMI), blood pressure and resting heart rate, and blood sugar and cholesterol levels. It is also important to be current on health, including cancer, screenings. Early detection really does save lives.”
Prevent injury. With the growing trend of employees working remotely, work to ensure employees’ home work environments are safe. Some companies are hiring ergonomics consultants to make sure their employees’ home office ergonomics are sound, to help prevent health problems, such as muscle strain and imbalances, fatigue and carpal tunnel syndrome.
Encourage time off. Encouraging employees to use their vacation time is not only good for them, it’s also good for your business. Vacation can reduce employee stress and minimize burnout. And rested employees are productive employees. It’s up to managers to model good behavior too. To encourage employees to use their earned vacation time, many companies have stopped compensating departing employees for their earned time. Some are even offering financial incentives to employees to use all of their vacation time.
Don’t skip the small things. While employers are working hard to cost-effectively provide major health and wellness benefits to their employees, Dr. Ukwu encourages employers not to forget the smaller, but still meaningful, gestures. “We have all been so far apart for the past 2 years; we long for human connection. An impromptu lunch or a small outdoor gathering that brings employees back together can go a long way in lifting spirits and boosting employee morale,” she says.
Looking for additional tips on how you and your employees can make 2022 a more healthful year? The primary care physicians affiliated with Memorial Hermann can help.