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Make Next Year Even Better by Establishing a Culture of Health


About a decade ago, the New England Journal of Medicine published a landmark study that identified a social dimension to the spread of obesity. The study found, among other things, that a person’s chances of becoming obese increase by 57 percent if he or she has a friend who also becomes obese.

Many, if not most, employees have co-workers they consider friends. So, in turn, a workplace’s “culture of health” — defined as a culture that supports or neglects healthy living — can have a major impact on workers’ well-being. Now, as 2017 winds down, think about how establishing a positive culture of health within your organization could make next year even better.

Establishing Expectations

Attempting to intervene individually on every employee’s health habits would probably be not only costly, but also possibly discriminatory and certainly an invasion of privacy. Offering a wellness program featuring, let’s say, voluntary individual private counseling with health and nutrition professionals is about as far as you can go.

But aggressively promoting a culture of health holds the potential for improvement on a grand scale. Start with conservative expectations: This will be a long-term effort. Cultures don’t change overnight. Plus, you’ll need to maintain most of the tactics involved in spurring a culture change indefinitely to prevent backsliding.

Also beware that motivating employees to maintain a healthful weight and to exercise regularly probably won’t translate into immediate savings on your health care benefits costs. Typical adverse health consequences of unhealthy living, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, might not crop up for years. In other words, your primary goal is to slow future health cost increases. So the sooner you get started, the sooner you’ll be in a position to reap the rewards.

Linking Health to Productivity

Some positive financial impacts can be more immediate, however — albeit harder to quantify. For example, improved health and employees’ belief that their employer takes an active interest in their well-being is associated with higher engagement, greater productivity and lower employee absenteeism. One study focusing on stress levels (an important attribute of workplace culture) by analysts at Willis Towers Watson found that about 50 percent of workers in low-stress environments are highly engaged, while only 8 percent in high-stress settings are so engaged.

With such high stakes, gaining buy-in and active participation from ownership and upper management for a sustained culture-of-health initiative must be achievable. If it isn’t, your organization may not want to attempt such an ambitious effort, because employees and their supervisors may take cues from the behavior and attitudes of those in corner offices.

Following a Blueprint

The following seven steps can serve as a blueprint for building a culture of health:

  1. Gather data. Take a fresh look at the level of health risks that your employee population incurs based on whatever aggregate data your health benefits provider can share with you without violating employee privacy regulations. Assess the effectiveness of your current health promotion initiatives, and look for workplace policies and practices that might undermine those efforts — such as ubiquitous high-calorie snack food vending machines or a lack of healthy meal choices in your cafeteria. Survey employees on their own assessments of the healthfulness of your workplace culture.
  2. Set goals. Establish health culture improvement objectives and metrics to assess progress toward achieving them. Metrics can include changes in employee survey results from the initial benchmark assessment and employee use of online health-promotion resources and tools. (The 2017 Willis Towers Watson Emerging Trends study found that nearly two-thirds of surveyed employers plan to provide employee access to a portal for tracking wellness program activity and incentives.)
  3. Think holistically. Employers are increasingly recognizing the relationship between employees’ financial condition — including both financial literacy and sound personal finance practices — and their physical health. Thus, helping employees achieve “financial wellness” can be an important goal in an effort to achieve a culture of health.
  4. Develop a program strategy. Identify program steps you can undertake on your own and those that will require support from outside vendors, possibly including your health plan provider and health promotion specialist firms. When using outside support, be sure that senior executives and managers remain actively and visibly involved with the campaign to reinforce the message that the effort is a top priority and not merely lip service.
  5. Devise incentives. These are often an integral part of a culture-of-health initiative. But if incentives become the focus of the strategy, employees may become less and less motivated as incentives are reduced. Emphasize that health improvement is the ultimate reward.
  6. Build a communication plan. As with any other major initiative, a culture-of-health program will succeed or fail based on employees’ understanding of not only what you’re trying to accomplish and how, but also the rationale behind it. Convey regular messages, including progress reports, using multiple communications media driven by employee demographics.
  7. Monitor results. As noted, bringing about a culture of health is a long-term proposition. Also, multiple components are involved, not all of which necessarily kick in at the start. So, after launching the program, appoint qualified staff members to monitor progress based on agreed-upon success metrics. These individuals must be prepared to inform upper management of needed adjustments as the initiative goes along.

Laying the Groundwork

Many industries have embraced long-term continuous quality improvement initiatives with the understanding that they may not immediately see a substantial return on investment. Lean manufacturing principles are just one example.

In the same way, your organization can lay the groundwork now to build a culture of health. Just be sure to work with your professional advisors to coordinate the program with your existing benefits in a financially sound and legally compliant manner.

If you would like to discuss how to develop a wellness program or determine which outsourced companies might be the best fit for your organization, contact Ron Present, Advisory Partner and Health Care Industry Group Leader.


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