Companies can improve their bottom lines if they invest in health programs for employees, with an eye on reducing medical claim costs, according to a study.
"It's a win-win opportunity - employers and employees can benefit from a healthier workforce," said LuAnn Heinen, vice president of the National Business Group on Health and the lead author of the study paper.
Describing their study in The Milbank Quaterly, Heinen and co-author Helen Darling revealed that they analysed four employer-sponsored wellness programs targeting a combined 75,000 employees.
Heinen said that among those programs was a hospital system that offered free annual health checks, Weight Watchers at Work, and an on-site fitness facility.
The researcher said that that program reported direct cost savings - a 40 percent reduction in medical costs over a three-year period for the 324 participating employees, i.e. a savings of more than one million dollars.
"The most advanced and successful approaches go beyond assuming that obesity starts and ends with personal responsibility," Heinen said.
The author writes that there was another program sponsored by a utility company with 6,000 employees, wherein 352 employees lost an average of seven pounds during a 12-week weight management plan at work.
Another programme the authors have written about was run by a food manufacturer with 27,000 employees, which featured a weight-loss competition.
In 2005, 23 percent of employees who participated had a body mass index (BMI) greater than or equal to 30 (considered obese). However, by 2008, only six percent of participants had a BMI in that range.
Heinen said that workplace programs showed positive results when they took a multi-pronged approach that included offering healthy foods in the cafeteria and vending machines, providing physical activity opportunities, and fostering a workplace culture that supports health.
Dr. Jennifer Huberty, assistant professor of physical activity in health promotion at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, agrees that environmental changes are vital to the success of workplace wellness programs.
She, however, is not in favour of incentives like offering cash or insurance premium discounts.
"It can manipulate someone to do it for a little while, but will they continue?. Employers have to ask themselves, 'Am I teaching a behavior that is going to be used for a long time?'" she said.
Heinen feels that for cost-conscious companies, implementing obesity prevention at work need not be prohibitively expensive. She recommends creating a wellness committee, led by employees who have had success in health and fitness.
From there, she adds, employers can take simple steps, such as requiring vendors to provide healthy snack options and providing pedometers to employees to encourage physical fitness.