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April 14, 2010 > An effective workforce health program can provide a competitive edge

An effective workforce health program can provide a competitive edge

By Elisa Mendel
Submitted By Johnny Ng

Workplace health programs aren't just a feel-good proposition. They can have a positive effect on a company's bottom line. At a time when businesses are trying to do more with less, fostering a total-health culture that improves employee health, job performance and morale can give you a competitive edge.

Studies have shown that unscheduled absences can cost employers $3,600 a year per hourly employee. Additionally, "presenteeism"-when employees are at work but not fully productive due to chronic conditions such as diabetes-can potentially cost employers another two or three dollars for every dollar they spend on direct medical costs.

Employees are a company's most important asset, and since they spend about 2,000 hours a year at work, it makes good business sense to help them live healthier and more active lives-which can translate into happier and more productive employees.

There are a variety of ways to create an effective workforce health program, but the most successful programs share several important elements. First, you need leadership endorsement. A program has a much better chance of success if your company's owner or CEO is on board.

To maximize employee participation, involve your employees in designing the program. You might want to conduct a short survey to find out your employees' interests. They'll tell you what's important to them.

You also want to build a program that works on many levels. For example, your program should support individual employees in achieving their personal goals, and your company policies should encourage physical activity in the workplace and healthy food choices in your cafeteria and vending machines.

Your program doesn't need to be expensive. Setting up a workplace gym can be prohibitive. A walking program is cheap and easy to do-and it can do wonders for employee camaraderie and teamwork. Just remember to offer something for every fitness level-for employees who are fit and healthy and want to stay that way, to those who want to change their lifestyle. And if your health plan offers e-mail contact with physicians and effective, evidence-based online tools that help further engage your employees in their health, that's a bonus.

Communication and motivation are also critical. If you want your employees to participate, you need to get the word out-consider increasing visibility by creating a name and a logo for the program, and celebrate successes with your employees through a variety of channels, including e-mails and newsletters.

Finally, make sure you understand what you want your program to accomplish, and then set appropriate goals, such as the number of participants or behavior improvements. It may take time to start your workforce health program, but it's an investment that will pay dividends, for your organization and for your employees.

Elisa Mendel is National Vice President, Healthworks and Product Innovation, at Kaiser Permanente

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