Measured in lost productivity and health care expenditures for businesses, the effects of obesity are staggering.
A recent study by Indiana University-Purdue University shows medical problems related to excessive weight have led to the following annual statistics:
• 39 million lost work days • 239 million days in which workers’ activities are restricted • 90 million days spent by Americans in hospitals • 63 million physician visits • $13 billion in costs to United States companies
And obesity is just one blip on the radar when it comes to the health of American workers.
To improve workers’ health and keep a handle on costs, employers nationwide fight a constant battle. To help those in the Las Vegas Valley, here are 10 employee health initiatives that experts say every business should consider:
Put on a health fair that includes a health risk assessment
Setting up a company health fair once or twice a year can be the first step to engaging employees and getting them on the right track to a healthy lifestyle.
“Healthy choice programs are about behavioral choices,” said Michael Murphy, president and general manager of Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield in Nevada. “One of the toughest things an employer battles is having someone who knows that something is wrong and yet they still continue to lead a lifestyle that won’t improve their health.”
Companies can provide an opportunity for employees to complete a health risk assessment online, then use that as a “ticket” to receive health screenings for factors as cholesterol, glucose, weight, body mass index, body fat percentage, waist circumference and blood pressure -- all at no cost to the worker.
“These are the first steps to knowing where you fall health-wise,” said Wendy Ronovech, Health Education and Wellness associate director at UnitedHealthcare. “After all of these results are compiled, we can offer options of face-to-face consultations or online learning options for any areas of concern.”
Promote use of generic prescriptions
Experts say it’s wise to let employees know that many times, obtaining generic drugs is as simple as asking for them when visiting a doctor or pharmacist.
Generic drugs are usually sold for significantly lower prices than name brands. One reason for the comparatively inexpensive price of generic medicines is that competition increases among producers when drugs are no longer protected by patents. Thus, companies incur fewer costs in creating generic drugs -- only the cost to manufacture, rather than the entire cost of development and testing -- and are therefore able to maintain profitability at a lower price.
“These can be tremendous cost savers for both the employee and the employer, depending on the plan,” said Donald Kowitz, president and chief executive officer for St. Mary’s Health Plans. “Check with your doctor to see if this will work for you.”
Personal engagement between management and employees is vital, said Gene Rapisardi, the Nevada market president and general manager for Cigna.
“Employees need that constant reminder about their health,” he said. “It benefits us; it benefits them.”
That can come through posters or signs in hallways or break rooms, or even through a weekly e-newsletter to staff. Rapisardi also pointed out with the increased use of smartphones and the additional ways they are being used to make lives simpler, the opportunities are endless.
“We call it health engagement,” he said. “It improves productivity and reduces cost. Let employees realize that there is a financial upside.”
Experts suggest signs promoting health fairs, classes that are being offered and even weekly health tips. Those same things can be highlighted in the e-newsletter that may include such additional things as a healthy recipe, the opportunity to organize a walking campaign or employee success stories.
Offer classes to help inform employees of healthy habits
The Health Education and Wellness Division, or HEW, at UnitedHealthcare plays an essential role in engaging employees and encouraging their participation. It utilizes Lunch-N-Learn Seminars that are designed to increase knowledge on a variety of health topics.
It offers sessions, which are designed as one-time, one-hour seminars, with such titles as: Allergies: Ease Your Sneeze; Diabetes: The Balancing Act; The Buffet Challenge; and The Supermarket Challenge.
“Each person is given a workbook, which is theirs to take home and continue to consult in the future,” Ronovech said. “The health educator uses these in the class.
“We write all of these workbooks in-house because it’s very important to follow the same guidelines that they’ll hear from a doctor. That way the employee is getting the same message on all fronts.”
Several health insurance providers also encourage employers to provide classes on such topics as tobacco cessation, fitness, nutrition and weight management.
“The key is engaging the employee and getting them to listen -- and then learn,” Kowitz said. “That can often be the tough part.”
Company-sponsored “Biggest Loser” program or a “Wellness/Fitness Challenge”
Contests can be set up in which individuals in an office compete against each other. For larger companies, different office/properties can wage a “battle of the bulge.”
“We’ve definitely found an increase in engagement with the employees,” Murphy said. “Plus, it’s fun, too. Some employees have told us that the only time that they exercise during the year is during this type of annual challenge.”
Typically, such programs last three to four months. Some companies even offer incentives to challenge participants to maintain their lower weight in the months after contests.
Ronovech warns there are pitfalls with these kinds of challenges that carry cash incentives.
“We ran into a company that had been doing this kind of thing each year,” she said. “However, some of the employees purposely gained weight in the months before it started in order to have a better shot at the big prizes. That’s a dangerous thing and certainly not what companies want their employees doing.”
Offer health/fitness club memberships
Many employers offer either free or subsidized discounts to local fitness clubs. They think the long-term benefit pays off for them through an increased productivity in the workplace as well as fewer lost days to illness.
The theory: Get employees to exercise and lower the eventual costs associated with treatment of diabetes and obesity.
“Make it an incentive plan to get out and exercise,” Murphy said. “Set up a program to measure an employee’s Body Mass Index as part of the deal. It becomes more powerful that way. If they can lower their BMI through working out at the gym, reward them for it.”
Provide an on-site gym or workout facility
If handing out memberships isn’t practical for your company, find a different solution. Giving employees a place to engage in physical fitness on site is immeasurable, Rapisardi said.
“Be sure that besides the weights and the stationary bikes, you have a place for yoga as well,” he said. “The world has changed. People are under more pressure and more stress than ever before.”
If an on-site gym isn’t logistically possible at your office, Murphy offers an alternative. Companies can set up a marked walking trail around their building or complex, he said.
“Mark out a half-mile trail around a couple of buildings outside,” Murphy said. “Give people an opportunity to go take a 15-minute walk. It will work wonders.
“Give out pedometers, too,” he said. “Encourage people to track 10,000 steps a day. Encourage them to take the stairs. You can’t turn off the elevators, but that encouragement to take the stairs at least twice a day helps.”
Encourage employees to pay attention to the network providers -- and use them
“Employees incur extra costs for themselves -- and their employers -- by using out-of-network providers,” Kowitz said. “There are often great doctors on the plan. You just have to get the employees to get used to using them.”
To combat the extra costs associated with emergency room visits for such things as cold symptoms, some insurance providers have raised the costs of the co-pays. For instance, a co-pay for a doctor’s office visit may run $20, while an urgent care visit would be $75 and an ER trip would be 20 percent of the costs.
“We have to encourage the use of people’s primary care physicians,” Kowitz said. “So many times, people are feeling really bad by noon and don’t do anything about it. Then they rush off to the ER at midnight. We just want people to be aware early and try to reach out to their doctors.”
Provide a wellness coach or health coach programs
Giving employees the chance to educate themselves or providing an avenue for them to ask questions can go along a long way.
“These coaches can educate them on how to test their blood when they are diabetic, eating plans and alcohol use, just to name a few,” Ronovech said. “There are also online programs where employees can watch videos about a variety of topics they have questions about.”
Rapisardi points out that type 2 diabetes has become a critical problem, and that’s in direct correlation to the rise in obesity.
“Many times you want to have these coaches deal with depression first, and then the diabetes,” he said. “Treat people like people not just as a risk factor. That’ll change the game in wellness.”
Cover the cost of an annual flu vaccination
Many health care professionals call this a simple -- yet very productive -- solution toward having a healthier workplace.
“Providing employees and their families with a flu shot each year sounds simple enough,” Kowitz said. “But the more you can keep them out of the doctor’s offices for these type of ailments is beneficial to all.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends flu shots for everyone 6 months of age and older. It’s especially important that certain people get vaccinated either because they are at high risk of having serious flu-related complications or because they live with or care for people who have a high risk to catching the flu, according to the CDC.
People considered high risk include children under the age of 5, adults older than 65 and pregnant women.