Editorial: Healthy Employees, Healthy Company | AIChE

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Editorial: Healthy Employees, Healthy Company


This is an expanded version of the Editorial that appeared in the print version of Chemical Engineering Progress,September 2016

Healthy Employees, Healthy Company

A new book featured in this month's Books department (p. 77–78), The Healthy Workplace, caught my attention. Author Leigh Stringer notes that "leading companies and organizations are seeing immediate and long-lasting benefits from investing in the health and well-being of their employees. The most obvious benefits to the bottom line are the avoidance of health care costs, but companies that make investments in employee health are also seeing increases in creativity, engagement, and productivity, and as a result, business growth."

Stringer asks whether we can change the way we work — integrate movement, improve our diet, and engage in relaxation techniques — so that we lose weight, reduce stress, increase our productivity, and prevent chronic diseases and ailments, such as obesity, smoking, musculoskeletal issues, and stress, before they even start. She cites three important arguments for why employers should invest in the health and engagement of their workforce: Employees spend more time at work than they do anywhere else. Investing in employee health and well-being has a strong return on investment (ROI). And, engaged and healthy employees increase financial performance.

Those arguments are backed by data. A study of healthcare costs found that Johnson & Johnson (J&J), which introduced a worksite health promotion program in 1979, experienced average annual growth in total medical spending during 2002–2008 that was 3.7 percentage points lower than similar large companies. J&J employees had meaningful reductions in rates of obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, tobacco use, physical inactivity, and poor nutrition. Average annual savings were $565 per employee (2009 dollars), producing an ROI of $1.88–$3.92 saved for every dollar spent on the program. Similarly, a meta-analysis literature survey found that medical costs fall by about $3.27 for every dollar spent on wellness programs and that absenteeism costs fall by about $2.73 for every dollar spent.

Stringer presents strategies that focus on maximizing our energy levels, reducing stress to increase focus, and maintaining healthy sleep habits. Being an architect, she includes recommendations related to workplace design, such as: make stairs more attractive to use, and add "point of decision" prompts (like a sign in the elevator lobby showing the location of the stairs); provide facilities for employees to work out and store bikes (and shower after exercising); provide a place where workers can eat and store their lunch; provide napping or wellness rooms; integrate plants and views of nature into the work environment; improve thermal comfort and air quality.

Employers, even individual managers, can nudge employees to alter their behavior, for instance by: encouraging employees to stand up, to walk and do other exercise, and to get outside; making healthy choices the default, for example, through the meals offered in the onsite cafeteria and snacks in the vending machines; encouraging employees to focus on one task at a time; scheduling employees as consistently as possible, and offering a choice for where, when, and how employees work; encouraging employees to take their vacation; setting devices to change light levels over the course of a workday; cutting out caffeine service by late afternoon; setting the example and/or setting a policy for employees to unplug; encouraging laughter in the workplace; giving employees time to sleep on tough work problems.

Finally, we can take actions to change our own behavior as well. In an interview with Working Mother, Stringer says we should kick four unhealthy habits as soon as possible: sitting all day; eating at your desk; not drinking enough water (divide your weight in pounds by two to calculate how many ounces of water you should drink each day); and staying inside all day.

What does your employer do to promote a healthy workplace? What actions have you taken?

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