In today's hectic world, most of us are spending more time at work, and have increasingly less time to look after our health. For a long time, employers have understood the benefits associated with keeping workers well - increased productivity from reduced absenteeism and lowered disability claims. For these reasons, coupled with the fact that many companies realized double-digit healthcare costs last year, companies should consider corporate wellness programs as a way to keep employees healthy.

But just how important are these programs to employees? How often are they willing to participate in programs designed to positively impact their health and wellness? Who do employees trust to provide them with important information about their health?

Answers to these questions and more were recently garnered from a study commissioned by the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses Inc. (AAOHN).

The AAOHN survey questioned 500 employees nationwide about their perceptions of corporate wellness programs. More than three-quarters of all participants indicated these programs are a good way to improve their overall health, and nearly 60 percent consider these offerings an incentive to remain with their current employer. Employee retention and turnover impact the bottom line, so building wellness programs into the work site culture is a valuable way to help retain talented employees in addition to enhancing personal health and workplace productivity.

Health wish list

Employees appear to have their own agenda when it comes to their health. With new pressures resulting from an unstable economy, national security threats and work/balance issues, it's not surprising that 85 percent of survey respondents cited stress management as a priority topic for work site wellness.

In addition to stress, other preferred topic areas include screening programs (84 percent), exercise/physical fitness programs (84 percent), health insurance education (81 percent) and disease management seminars (80 percent).

In addition to lifestyle and personal health issues, those asked expressed concern about work-related health issues, including strains and injuries resulting from lifting or task-oriented muscle repetition, exposure to harmful substances, personal injury, vision changes due to computer work and workplace violence.

What you should do

With such a broad range of health concerns, a key goal for employers is finding a way to proactively address the health needs of the largest number of employees, and effectively change unhealthy behaviors, promote wellness and ward off disease and illness.

Printed materials such as brochures, posters, fliers or pamphlets present an easy solution. But it's important to remember that different people require different formats for learning. A good rule of thumb: provide information in a variety of learning formats such as videos, pamphlets, health-related quizzes, display boards, lunch-and-learn presentations and reimbursement or incentive programs.

This assumes you've overcome the first hurdle - getting people to sign on to a wellness program. While survey respondents indicated health and wellness programs are important, just six out of 10 (60 percent) reported that they participated in the wellness programs at their companies. The other 40 percent cited lack of interest and lack of time as deterrents.

This points to the need for a comprehensive, structured wellness program using a creative approach, with an incentive for participation and effective program marketing.

By investing in an organized wellness program headed by a qualified healthcare professional such as an on-site nurse, companies can give employees the access to the health information they want, and increase participation and generate interest at the same time.

The result: employees become savvier healthcare consumers who feel more in charge of their personal health. And healthier employees make for a healthier bottom line.

SIDEBAR: Who has the expertise?

When it comes to working wellness into your workforce, you want someone who knows the ins and outs of health promotion, and who can counsel employees and provide primary care - all within the context of the current regulatory and legal environment.

AAOHN's survey reported that more than half of employees (61 percent) want to receive health and wellness information from a healthcare professional, such as a consultant or an on-site occupational health nurse (OHN), compared to pamphlets or brochures (18 percent) or human resources staff (15 percent).

OHNs can develop, implement and evaluate components of work site wellness programs such as screening programs, exercise/fitness courses, stress management, smoking cessation, nutrition and weight control programs, as well as chronic illness management programs. Plus, OHNs can help employees navigate through complicated health plans and may even serve as a triage point between employees and their personal healthcare providers.

Employees might refrain from seeing their healthcare provider when it means time away from work, inconvenient parking, waiting time in the office and co-pays. In situations where employees are under treatment for chronic diseases like heart disease, on-site nurses can routinely monitor risk factors such as blood pressure or cholesterol on a regular basis.

It's often easier for an employee to ask an on-site nurse for information about symptoms or prescription medication than it is to schedule a follow-up visit to a personal healthcare provider. Benefits realized by employers include enhanced employee morale and retention, a recruitment advantage, increased productivity and decreased time away from work.

In companies with a safety department, the OHN can evaluate and address work-related health issues, including participation in workstation evaluations to correct potential ergonomic problems, and proactively addressing muscle strains by developing stretching programs and involving employees in leading stretches.