Simple solution for healthy employees — Let’s get moving!

There’s a growing debate on Capitol Hill about the rising cost of healthcare and the financial impact it will have on the private and public sectors.  President Barack Obama is working with Democratic and Republican congressional leaders to craft a solution which will provide comprehensive healthcare coverage for the nation’s citizens without bankrupting the healthcare system or private enterprise.

Although these are tenuous times in Washington, DC, both sides of the healthcare policy debate can agree: when workers are healthy and fit, they are happier and more productive on the job. Smart employers know that an investment in their workers’ wellness yields handsome returns in the form of greater productivity and lower long-term medical costs.

Recognizing the value of a fit and healthy workplace to organizations and workers alike, the California Task Force on Youth and Workplace Wellness will honor over 70 employers with the 2009 Fit Business Awards sponsored by Kaiser Permanente.  The annual awards program was first launched in 2003 to private and non-profit companies across California seeking to recognize business models that promote a healthier workplace.

The need to promote healthy workplaces remains clear: the cost of an unhealthy workforce is costing California dearly.  According to a recent study published by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, physical inactivity, obesity and other health related problems cost California employers an estimated $41 billion each year; this is a $12 billion increase from previous 2004 estimates. Half of the total amount was spent on healthcare and half came from lost productivity at the workplace.  Steady increases in health insurance and workers compensation premiums are due in part to increasing illness caused by poor diet and lack of physical activity.  California employers are impacted directly since it affects their bottom line as does lost productivity resulting from these risk factors.  Taxpayers, too, have a huge financial stake in reversing these public health liabilities, as they pay for resulting illness through Medi-Cal and Medicare. If this trend continues, according to the study, total costs for the state will increase to $52.7 billion in 2011.  Among California counties, Los Angeles with its large population accounted for more than one-quarter of all costs, followed by Orange and San Diego counties.

Because people spend much of their time at the workplace, California employers are uniquely positioned to promote the health of their employees. They are increasingly aware of the positive connection that employee health has on their financial bottom line and are constantly seeking new methods to promote wellness in the workplace.  For example, a recent review of health promotion and disease management programs found a significant return on investment for employee wellness programs, with benefit-to-cost ratios ranging from $1.49 to $4.91(median of $3.14) in benefits for every dollar spent on innovative workplace programs.

Among the innovations implemented by this year’s Fit Business Award, winners were given free use of bicycles, lock and helmet for employees; healthy food and beverage options in cafeterias and at staff meetings; healthy and organic vending machine options; free bottle water and fresh fruit for employees; Biggest Loser Weight competitions, walking, and running clubs; healthy cooking classes, on-site massage therapists, fitness evaluations and free fitness classes; physical activity and stretch breaks; in addition to reimbursement for wellness and fitness-related services such as gym memberships, dance lessons, golf outings, cycling and hiking gear.

I hope you’ll join me in honoring the Gold Medal recipients of the 2009 Fit Business Awards for their clear commitment to employee wellness: BD Biosciences, Bentley Prince Street, County of Ventura, DES Architects + Engineers, McDonough Holland & Allen PC, Safeway, Inc. and Vons.  These seven employers from around the state exemplify the best practices of fostering unique wellness programs that meet their individual workplace needs. They’ve invested innovatively in the health and wellness of their workers and it’s paid off with reduced health care costs, fewer missed work days, greater worker productivity and improved employee morale. The California Task Force on Youth and Workplace Wellness recognize these progressive organizations in hopes that more employers will appreciate the return on investment in workplace wellness and join our collective effort to make California the healthiest state in America.

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