Each Labor Day, a group of physicians — the American College of Occupational and Environmental Health — issues recommendations to improve worker safety and health. This year the “occ docs” targeted obesity in the workplace.

“Millions of Americans are fighting the battle against obesity,” says ACOEM. It’s a health issue that can kill people, inflate healthcare costs, and reduce workplace productivity, the group explains.

But is anyone listening? Two-thirds of workplace health promotion programs fail, according to a recent Canadian study.

Employee apathy

Employees show little interest in wellness activities, for one thing.

In a United Kingdom survey, for example, only 13 percent of employees welcomed the idea of 15-minute workplace workouts. And despite the highly publicized battle of the bulge, only one in ten backed a ban on the sale of high fat snacks, drinks and candy at work.

That’s no surprise, really. Many of us aren’t interested in moving muscles much. One in four Americans get no exercise at all, according to the article, “Why are we so fat?” in the August, 2004 issue of National Geographic. More than two-thirds of us don’t get the recommended exercise minimum of 30 minutes a day, most days a week.

But we do like to eat. Adult women eat 335 more calories per day than they did in 1971; adult men put away 168 more calories. “Super size me,” goes the title of a documentary on jumbo fast food servings. A bucket of megaplex buttered popcorn packs 1,700 calories today versus the 174 calories of movie popcorn common in the 1950s. An order of McDonald’s fries in 1955 totaled 210 calories; today it comes in a cardboard crate with 610 calories.

One of three Americans is obese in 2004, twice as many as three decades ago. Obesity is an epidemic, declares the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Taking the health risk further, 64 percent of Americans are overweight. Putting on excess pounds is associated with 400,000 deaths a year, and increased odds of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and colon and breast cancers, according to the National Geographic cover story.

“Ghastly.” That’s wellness pioneer Don Ardell’s description of our current health status. Most people are overstressed, overweight, underfit and have given in to poor diets, he says in an interview published by the Wellness Councils of America.

Ardell sees two problems: we expect too much from modern medicine, and too little of ourselves.

Maybe that’s a reason why only two percent of employees surveyed earlier this year reported participating in a workplace weight-management program, according to the American Association of Occupational Health.

Off the radar

Here’s the second problem: Most CEOs don’t see employee health status as a problem.

“In smaller and medium-sized companies, health promotion isn’t even on the radar,” says Steven Aldana, a Brigham Young University health researcher, in an interview published earlier this year by the Wellness Councils of America.

To be sure, about 95 percent of companies with more than 200 employees and about a third of smaller ones offer some kind of program to improve worker health, according to an article in The Washington Post.

But most wellness programs are passive and reactive — just like many traditional safety programs. Maybe health tips are posted on bulletin boards next to safety posters. Or behavior modification is tried on employees after health risks are evident — smoking, high blood pressure or weight problems.

Most wellness programs are small-scale. Individual health behaviors get the attention, rather than the organizational issues — work conditions, deadlines and schedules, job content, coworker and supervisor relations and financial rewards — that can contribute to job stress and absenteeism, says Vancouver health consultant Graham Lowe in a recent report, “Health Workplace Strategies.”

And most programs don’t take wellness out of the classroom. To help employees manage weight problems, 38 percent of employers bring in health and wellness experts for visits and 16 percent offer a health series or seminar, according to the AAOHN survey.

Lectures and newsletters are not what Don Ardell had in mind when he started promoting wellness in the 1970s. Wellness is a mindset, a philosophy, and most critically “a choice to assume responsibility for the quality of your life,” he says in the WELCOA interview.

Familiar obstacles

Wellness programs fail for some of the same reasons safety programs often don’t extend beyond OSHA compliance minimums.

1) Where’s the business case? Wellness benefits are hard to measure. You need to collect and interpret huge amounts of data over time. Some costs, such as health care utilization and absenteeism, are easy to document. Others, such as the impact of having sick workers show up for work but perform below par, are not.

“We all know that workers are more productive and happier when they are healthy, but it’s just difficult to prove, “ said Dr. Desiree Backman, manager of a California health promotion campaign, in an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

2) Give me the quick fix. Execs want fast bottom line payoffs. But it takes up to 20 years for health promotion to deliver significant health care cost savings.

3) Blame the victim. It’s less costly and less complicated to zero in on unhealthy employee behavior — rather than long shifts and tight deadlines that could lead to distress and unhealthy coping. Employees get the message. Some resent it: Don’t tell me how to live my life.

4) What, me worry? Why think about health consequences you might pay for 20, 30, 40 years down the line? It won’t happen to me, at least not today. So how about another Krispy Kreme?

5) Personal responsibility is a tough sell. Wellness requires a conscious decision to commit to self-responsibility, says Don Ardell. But 75 percent of employees recently surveyed in Michigan feel it’s their employer’s responsibility to promote wellness and healthy living practices, according to St. John’s Health.

Similar solutions

If some of the obstacles that wellness and safety face are the same, so are the strategies to build support.

  • Find a champion. Someone high up in the organization who values fitness and healthy living. Someone who has the connections to spread the message and secure funding. How athletic is your CEO? Like safety, an organization’s commitment to wellness often depends on the values of a handful of people in high places. Values might even be more crucial to wellness, since it isn’t driven by OSHA-like compliance mandates.

  • Start small and don’t force it. Don’t suddenly ban Twinkies in the cafeteria and tempt a protest rally. Slip in subtle healthy choices. Bottled water in vending machines. Granola bars mixed in with morning doughnuts. Gym memberships. Walking paths and bike racks. Screenings for cholesterol, body fat, glucose, blood pressure and osteoporosis.

  • Have fun with it. Johnson Financial Group in Racine, Wisconsin, was losing participation with traditional fitness challenge teams, so it challenged employees to do something they do every day: walking. Employees track the number of steps they take each day with a pedometer attached to their waist. Out of 984 employees, 563 have signed up. The goal is to walk 825 miles, the distance from the Johnson building in Racine to six different Johnson Bank locations in Wisconsin.

  • Make it easy. Security Federal Credit Union in Flint, Michigan, set up a series of lunch hour seminars on nutrition and stress management. Employees chip in a dollar to help cover the cost of the meal. Bosses are encouraged to attend. “We hope to show them how to relieve stress without shifting work to other employees,” an instructor told the Flint Journal.