Shedding weight of workplace health risks

Variety of weight-loss options support employee behaviour, help drive costs down
By Sue Brown
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/20/2011

Canadians are tipping the scales — 62 per cent of the working population is overweight or obese, according to Statistics Canada. Obesity is connected to several health risk factors and can increase the risk of a number of chronic conditions, such as Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and some forms of cancers. There’s also the stigma associated with it, and reduced psychological well-being.

For employers, employee health is a significant concern. Employees with more than one health risk (overweight being just one of several risk factors) are absent much more frequently and are more costly in terms of short- and long-term disability, health benefits, engagement, productivity and presenteeism.

Modifiable health-risk factors — such as exercise and eating habits, stress management practices, body weight, sleep habits, alcohol and tobacco intake — contribute considerably to an employee’s health status. Given this tremendous impact, employee health risks should be managed in the workplace just as an employer might manage any other business risk.

In the case of weight-related health risks, employees and employers can work together to take control and reduce these risks. There are many resources, programs and online tools available to support and encourage employees to maintain a healthy weight or reduce their risk due to body weight. From no-cost or low-cost options to comprehensive programs, every employer can do something to mitigate this risk.

Healthy weight challenges are a popular option. In some cases, the employer may only be the facilitator, inviting weight-management suppliers access to lunchtime meetings with employees. Some programs offer online registration for individual employees or team members to track their healthy eating habits, minutes of exercise, body weight or body mass index (BMI).

Some of these tools allow participants to maintain anonymity by using an avatar. This adds a fun factor as well as privacy protection. The individual or team with the most participation or improvement is recognized as the winner.

When these challenges are designed and implemented appropriately, the results are terrific and there is a spillover effect when it comes to employee morale and team spirit.

Employee assistance programs (EAPs) are another option, as many vendors offer educational sessions as well as online or over-the-phone health coaching services. Employees are encouraged to develop an action plan where they:

• set their health goals

• develop a support system

• identify their start date

• decide how they will overcome their barriers

• decide what behaviour change strategies they will use.

Employers can also offer discounts or reimbursement programs for employees to choose a health provider in their community to help them better manage their weight or other health risks. This may be preferred by employers that do not have the space or resources on-site and by employees keen to participate close to home or with family members.

Tracking tools that can be set up in the workplace to confidentially monitor body weight, BMI, body composition or blood pressure are also available. A wireless health tracker can even send employees weekly email reports when they exercise. Attached to the results is an enewsletter with exercise, nutrition, coping and self-esteem articles to motivate and educate employees.

This is coupled with an incentive tracking system that is designed to offer points for weight loss, minutes of exercise or healthy eating habits. The employees see their progress over time and the incentive points they have earned, which can be cashed in for prizes or gift cards. The employer only receives aggregate reports.

Walking, running or biking routes mapped out for employees with pedometers to track distance or minutes of exercise also can encourage activity in the workplace, especially if department heads or senior leaders actively participate or model healthy behaviours.

Workplace meetings or social events that provide healthy eating choices also help show employees an organization cares about their health. Frozen healthy meals employees can order to take home when they are working late can help employees manage work-life balance and prevent a fast-food pickup on the rush home. This is also a good option for night-shift workers when cafeterias that are open during the day are closed for their shift.

Of course, few employers have cafeterias or offer concierge services and most have cost-containment pressures, but developing policies, procedures and practices that are health-enhancing will speak volumes and develop a culture of health in the workplace. Employees who are treated with respect and fairness will be motivated to take care of themselves and the business.

The Canada Standards Association (CSA) and Bureau de Normalisation du Québec (BNQ) know the importance of a healthy culture and healthy employees. They have established a new national standard in Canada — Prevention, Promotion and Organizational Practices Contributing to Health in the Workplace — commonly called the Healthy Enterprise. Canadian workplaces that meet the criteria will be accredited with “Healthy Enterprise” or “Elite Healthy Enterprise” status.

The standard will bring more focus to the need to manage risks in the workplace — including employee health risks — and build recognition for employers striving to incorporate healthy practices.

When a workplace culture is focused on health promotion, it is less likely an individual will fight the norm.With support and inspiration from peers and employers, employees can change their outlook on personal health and wellness.

Sue Brown is a principal in Mercer’s health and benefits business in Toronto. She can be reached at susan.brown@mercer.com.

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