To fight worker illness, we need uniform measurements

By Mike McCallister
January 23, 2013

Improving the health of employees worldwide is vital to our global economic strength and growth. In the U.S. alone, the economic cost of chronic diseases is estimated at $1.3 trillion annually. The World Economic Forum’s Workplace Wellness Alliance was launched in 2010, and it has spent the years since driving home the critical importance of investing in workplace wellness.

This year, the Alliance is releasing a report that underscores a crucial ingredient to help our mission. Entitled “Making the Right Investment: Employee Health and the Power of Metrics,” the report focuses on the need to establish a common set of yardsticks that organizations can use to understand fully the impact of their wellness programs. It further demonstrates how imperative it is for all of us to work together to learn more about the ways we can encourage and enhance health and wellness in the workplace.

The Alliance’s collaborative structure has generated several key insights about developing a sustainable workforce. Primarily, we’ve learned that a healthy work environment makes a positive impact on employee engagement, productivity and the bottom line.

Among our insights and discoveries, Alliance members have also learned the monstrous toll of chronic diseases. In any given year, one-third of the world’s workforce must deal with diabetes, cancers, obesity and high blood pressure, among other maladies. But, workplace wellness programs that emphasize lifestyle changes and promote health clearly prove beneficial, research shows.

As the wise saying goes, what gets measured gets managed. That’s why we have collected homogeneous health metrics from almost two million employees across 25 companies. These metrics will help companies collaborate on a set of successful approaches and learn how to adapt best practices to their employees’ health needs.

This information repository will be housed on a web portal for any company to use. Through this effort we will be able to create a business case for companies to champion workplace wellness programs. These programs are designed to help employees address familiar risk factors – such as smoking, inactivity and poor diet – that cause complex chronic diseases and conditions.

The good news is that employers are recognizing the value of wellness programs and more companies are offering them today than ever before. In the U.S., 73 percent of large firms with 500 or more employees and 27 percent of smaller firms offered such programs in 2011, up from 49 percent and 16 percent, respectively, five years earlier.

Alliance members better understand that making progress on wellness lies in structured processes and collaborations. They’re essential to identify risk factor targets and design programs to mitigate them, and also to identify programs that make a difference to employee wellness.

My former company Humana and South Africa-based Discovery Holdings Ltd. have created a program that provides a comprehensive wellness and loyalty program that integrates rewards with healthy behaviors. HumanaVitality helps reduce costs by providing the tools and support to help members live healthier lives. Already, HumanaVitality has more than 1.7 nearly 2.6 million members enhancing their well-being through this comprehensive integrated approach to lifestyle improvement.

Members can save money at Walmart through a program that gives a five percent saving on certain healthier foods. Additionally, Humana members participate in healthy living, fitness and education activities to earn bonus points redeemable for movie tickets, hotel discounts, gift cards, and more.

Novartis, also an Alliance member, offers a wellness program called “Be Healthy,” that’s tailored to suit all employees from manufacturing to office-based roles. In 2012 this initiative reached 95 percent of more than 120,000 Novartis associates worldwide and it expects its absence rate to decline. Program champions also communicate regularly with employees, monitor participation and encourage best practice sharing.

A third Alliance member, Johnson & Johnson, is focusing on preventing chronic diseases by making smoking cessation a top priority. The company has a tobacco-free policy on company property, supports smoking cessation education and subsidizes efforts to quit. In this year’s WEF Workplace Alliance Report, the initiative’s return on investment, calculated on the time employees previously spent on smoking breaks, includes improved productivity equated to about $3.9 million per year.

Through knowledge sharing and metrics, the Alliance is working to achieve a global standard of wellness to enhance population health and workforce productivity. It has grown from a few companies to more than 150 multinational corporations, representing hundreds of thousands of employees. You can count on the Alliance and its new leadership, the Institute of Health and Productivity Management, to continue to collaborate and achieve further strides with employee wellness as a vector for improved population health and organizational resilience.

PHOTO: Nurse Donna Riccardi administers a shot of Influenze virus vaccine to patient Deanna Joa at the New York Downtown Hospital in New York January 10, 2013. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

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