â€œMillions of Americans are fighting the battle against obesity,â€ says ACOEM. Itâ€™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 apathyEmployees 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.
Thatâ€™s no surprise, really. Many of us arenâ€™t interested in moving muscles much. One in four Americans get no exercise at all, according to the article, â€œWhy are we so fat?â€ in the August, 2004 issue of National Geographic. More than two-thirds of us donâ€™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. â€œSuper size me,â€ 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 McDonaldâ€™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.
â€œGhastly.â€ Thatâ€™s wellness pioneer Don Ardellâ€™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 thatâ€™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 radarHereâ€™s the second problem: Most CEOs donâ€™t see employee health status as a problem.
â€œIn smaller and medium-sized companies, health promotion isnâ€™t even on the radar,â€ 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 â€” 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 â€” smoking, high blood pressure or weight problems.
Most wellness programs are small-scale. Individual health behaviors get the attention, rather than the organizational issues â€” work conditions, deadlines and schedules, job content, coworker and supervisor relations and financial rewards â€” that can contribute to job stress and absenteeism, says Vancouver health consultant Graham Lowe in a recent report, â€œHealth Workplace Strategies.â€
And most programs donâ€™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 â€œa choice to assume responsibility for the quality of your life,â€ he says in the WELCOA interview.
Familiar obstaclesWellness programs fail for some of the same reasons safety programs often donâ€™t extend beyond OSHA compliance minimums.
1) Whereâ€™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.
â€œWe all know that workers are more productive and happier when they are healthy, but itâ€™s just difficult to prove, â€œ 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. Itâ€™s less costly and less complicated to zero in on unhealthy employee behavior â€” rather than long shifts and tight deadlines that could lead to distress and unhealthy coping. Employees get the message. Some resent it: Donâ€™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 wonâ€™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 itâ€™s their employerâ€™s responsibility to promote wellness and healthy living practices, according to St. Johnâ€™s Health.
Similar solutionsIf some of the obstacles that wellness and safety face are the same, so are the strategies to build support.