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Study: We’re not nearly as healthy as we think we are
SHRM Online -- Jan 25, 2007 --

By Kathy Gurchiek

A majority of the more than 5,200 women and men participating in recent workplace health screenings are at high risk for heart attacks, diabetes, strokes and other diseases, according to a health services company.

Among key findings: More than half of men screened were at risk for high blood pressure, and more than one-third of all men and women over age 40 had total cholesterol levels at borderline high or high levels.

Phoenix-based Kronos Optimal Health Co.—which offers health products and services to consumers, employers and health care providers—performed the screenings at companies throughout the United States. The vast majority of all those screened were full-time employees. Sixty-seven percent were in Arizona.

Other findings:

    • About 75 percent of men age over 40 and 72 percent of men under 40 are overweight or obese.

    • More than 64 percent of women over 40 and 50 percent under 40 are overweight or obese.

    • Among 9,122 people screened for high blood pressure, total cholesterol, LDL (low-density lipoprotein or “lousy”) cholesterol levels, total triglycerides and fasting glucose, 2,461 (27 percent) had “high risk” referral conditions.

    • More than half of all men screened were at risk for high blood pressure. That, along with men with Stage 1 or Stage 2 hypertension, made up nearly three-fourths of men under 40 and more than 80 percent of older men had higher-than-normal blood pressure.

    • More than 35 percent of women under 40 and 43 percent of those 40 and older are at risk of high blood pressure.

The majority of men screened—nearly 36 percent—were ages 30 to 39; the majority of women screened—31 percent—were ages 30 to 39.

“More than one-fourth of the screening tests resulted in referrals to the employees’ primary care physicians, underscoring the need for testing and early intervention,” said Dr. Susan Kaib, medical director for Kronos Corporate and Community Wellness programs.

“Undiagnosed conditions can lead to more serious problems, including coronary heart disease and diabetes,” she said in a press release. “Caught early, these diseases can be prevented or their impact reduced.”

It’s important employees know their actual health risks, Kronos President Andrea Lazar told HR News.

“Move away from self-reported [health] risks” in which employees enter their own cholesterol levels or blood pressure levels, and get employees screened, she advised.

The overall health care costs for Cadmus, a publishing-services company in Richmond, Va., grew $500,000 in 2005 after rising by $2 million in each of the preceding four years, an improvement it attributed in part to the wellness program it has had for nearly two years, according to a Dec. 5, 2006, report by The Wall Street Journal.

At Cadmus, which instituted mandatory screenings to qualify for medical coverage, the screenings led to 140 employees going on medication to control high blood pressure and 150 others taking cholesterol medication.

“Hospital stays fell sharply” as a result of the program, the newspaper reported.

Poor habits

Poor personal habits are primary factors driving today’s health care costs, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt.

“We don’t take very good care of ourselves,” he observed Jan. 16 during a keynote luncheon address hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C.

“I’m talking about very basic things such as diet and exercise and practicing just good habits. Until we pursue prevention with the same level of rigor that we pursue treatment after we get sick, we’re going to continue to see the kind of cost escalation [of health care] that we have.”

Wellness programs, including weight management and tobacco cessation initiatives, have proved successful in helping U.S. employees stay healthy while benefiting employers’ bottom lines, according to the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses Inc. (AAOHN).

Employers can play a big part in helping workers stay health year-round, says

Thomas B. Gilliam, Ph.D., co-author of Move It. Lose It. Live Healthy: Achieve a Healthier Workplace One Employee at a Time! (T. Gilliam & Associates, 2005).

“Sure, your initial goal is to save money, but even more importantly you’ll affect your employees’ well-being in a very holistic sense,” he said in a press release. “Ultimately, they will become better, happier employees.”

Among steps he suggests employers can take:

    • Encourage employees to adopt the buddy system. People are more likely to stick to a workout routine when they have a workout companion.

    • Conduct a daily weigh-in. Ensure privacy with a partition around the weigh-in area; use a scale that accommodates all workers, such as one with a 0-400 pound range; keep results confidential; and offer incentives to those who maintain or lose weight.

    • Provide accurate information about managing body weight and getting involved with safe physical activity programs crucial to employees’ health. Subscribe to credible wellness programs that provide well-researched books, newsletters, tracking programs and the like.

    • Stock the break room with healthy foods. Work out a deal with a local grocery to provide fresh fruits and vegetables for employees to snack on, and use the bulletin board to post healthy winter food options.

    • Be a team player—munch on healthy snacks, participate in lunch hour workouts and weigh in regularly with fellow employees.

“When your employees see that you are right there in the trenches with them, trying to lose weight and stay healthy, they will feel more like the company as a whole is one big team,” Gilliam said.

Getting buy-in from top leadership and middle managers is key, Kronos’ Kaib told HR News.

A wonderful worksite wellness program is meaningless if top-line management won’t give people an hour of paid time to get assessed or if a mid-level supervisor wants people at their desks instead of participating in wellness activities, she said.

And don’t forget about night shift workers, advises Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

It’s hard to maintain a healthy diet when the body’s natural circadian rhythms dramatically clash with a person’s work schedule, according to registered dietician Netty Levin, a certified diabetes educator there.

“Some night shift workers eat at work in order to maintain their stamina, then go home and eat with their families,” she said in a press release. “People can lose sight of portion control.”

Also, lack of sleep is a common problem for night shift workers and studies have shown that people who do not get sufficient sleep are more prone to being overweight.

Dental health also is among the wellness steps an employer can take. OraMedica International LLC—a provider of dental health wellness programs—is launching a new employee benefit program that delivers health-conscious dental information to help with preventative measures and treatment decisions.

Whatever shape the program takes, tying incentives to employee participation in various wellness activities is key, according to Kaib. That includes participation by the employee’s dependents as well, which the employer can encourage by opening the premises to them to attend employer-sponsored health fairs or onsite lectures, and providing access to educational materials online or by phone.

“The most effective in terms of getting people’s attention is tying [participation] to benefits,” she said, especially if the incentives build value in wellness participation all year and not just an annual health screening.

“From the employer’s perspective, [a] cash [incentive] is one thing, but I want to make this program an integral part of our entire benefits package, so tying it to deductible levels is really making it part of the entire group health insurance plan.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kgurchiek@shrm.org.

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