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By Natalie Saar / Jan 14, 2016

Workplace Wellness: Employees and Employers Can Meet In the Middle

workplace wellness study

Consider this: if employed Americans work an 8 hour day, that means at least one-third of their 24 hours are spent in an office environment. This implies that employers play a big role in ensuring their employees are healthy and happy.

But what does workplace wellness really look like for employees?

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), workplace wellness includes “programs and activities typically offered through employer-provided health plans as a means to help employees improve health and reduce health care costs.” The programs contained in this definition are “reasonably designed to promote health or prevent disease.” The Transamerica Center for Health Studies® recently completed their third annual survey conducted among 4,611 adults ages 18-64. The survey was conducted August through September (2015) via Harris Poll, and took into account answers from both employees and employers to find out what people on both sides of the discussion think. TCHS also partnered with the Institute for Health and Productivity Studies (IHPS) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to release From Evidence to Practice: Workplace Wellness that Works, an evidence-based, straightforward workplace health promotion guide for employers.

Let’s start with Americans who are insured and those who are not, as well as why they are uninsured. According to the survey, the reasons for not having health insurance are primarily twofold: it’s considered too expensive and people report feeling uninformed.

Over half of Americans, 66 percent, say they can not afford a $300 per month premium, and only 41 percent of the uninsured say they can afford routine health expenses. Though, 61 percent of newly insured Americans say they can afford the routine expenses.

Health care expenses aside, the other main reason Americans aren’t covered by health insurance is the low awareness of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) insurance deadline. A little over one in four people say they don’t know when the deadline is, and almost one in five says they don’t know how to apply.

Hector De La Torre, executive director of the Transamerica Center for Health Studies®, explained the problem this way:

“Our survey results tell us that despite a significant increase in the number of Americans now insured, the remaining uninsured continue to be the least informed about how and where to get health care insurance, presenting unique challenges come tax season. The uninsured continue to disproportionally be younger, less likely to be employed, and less able to afford routine health costs than the general population.”

Interestingly, the study also found that chronic health conditions span racial demographics with 67 percent of white Americans reporting having a chronic health condition. Meanwhile, African Americans have the highest rates of high blood pressure (24 percent) and Type 2 Diabetes (10 percent). Forty-one percent of the Asian American population reports having a chronic condition, making this demographic the least likely segment to report having any chronic health conditions.

Most of those with health insurance are employees who are offered benefits through their employers, and it turns out employees feel strongly about their employers’ role in their health.

Fifty-seven percent of employed Americans feel that their employers should play an active role in their health, with 68 percent of employees adding that lower health insurance premiums should be offered if they participate in health promotion programs. When employees are offered these programs, they’re likely to take advantage of them, too. Forty-six percent participate in screenings and vaccinations, there’s 36 percent participation in health goals and biometrics monitoring, 30 percent partake in healthy food options and the same percentage take advantage of ergonomic workstations.

Overall when it comes to health care, 63 percent of employees are satisfied with their benefits and don’t plan to make any changes. But one in four people are still dissatisfied with wellness discounts offered through their employer, specifically when it comes to screenings, vaccinations, exercise programs, and healthy food options.

On the other side of the discussion are the employers, who largely want to make sure their employees are healthy. Fifty-seven percent want to try to consistently contribute to their employees’ premium costs, and 60 percent want to contribute to the deductibles.

Notably, 61 percent of employers offer workplace wellness programs because they believe the programs will reduce costs thus saving money. Of the employers who enacted these programs, 82 percent said it had a positive impact on their employees’ health, and 80 percent noted a positive impact on productivity and performance. De La Torre noted, “Interestingly, employers that offer health care benefits are more likely than those that do not to anticipate profitability, hiring and wage increases in the next two years.”

Once employers have decided to implement workplace wellness programs, they have to choose programs that are proven to work. There are lots of options out there; some are simple and some require a little bit more effort.

Employers need to start somewhere though. According to the study, it’s recommended that they come up with a plan first. Start by administering a baseline survey to find out what employees want out of their health and wellness options. Next, they need to find a senior leader who will take up the charge of making sure their employees are feeling healthy and taking care of their wellbeing. This person will also help their company take the next step, which is making bold choices and implementing change. These changes can include creating a smoke-free environment and providing incentives for people who choose to stop smoking. Employers will also want to dedicate resources to communicating with their employees about general wellness to ensure that they’re given information about how to stay healthy.

So, what are some specific ways employers can help their employees?

After they find out what their employees want, employers need to sincerely consider the feedback. If healthy snacks are something employees want, then swap out the foods and drinks in vending machines for healthier, natural options. Organize groups to encourage people to get active. These can be walking groups who spend time socializing and walking around on their lunch break, or if an employer has lots of employees, even small sports leagues are a great way to encourage physical activity. If an employer has the ability to do so, they should consider putting some exercise equipment near the workspace so people have the option to move around throughout the day. They can encourage their employees to bike to work, and possibly even provide incentives to do so. Some companies, like Honest Tea, offer bikes to their employees at no cost to help encourage biking to the office. If there is a staircase available to get to your office, create a rotating art display that encourages people to take the stairs instead of the elevator. This is also a good opportunity to continue displaying healthy messaging to employees. Creating active workstations, like utilizing standing desks, is another way to make sure people are not sedentary for the entire workday.

The possibilities for inspiring employees are endless, and can be tapered to their specific needs. Listen to their concerns, address them, and in the end more people will lead healthy lives.
The Transamerica Center for Health Studies® (TCHS) is a division of the Transamerica Institute®, a nonprofit, private foundation. TI is funded by contributions from Transamerica Life Insurance Company and its affiliates and may receive funds from unaffiliated third parties. TCHS is dedicated to identifying, researching and analyzing the most relevant health care issues facing consumers and employers nationwide. For more information about TCHS, please visit www.TransamericaCenterforHealthStudies.org.
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