Powerful Influencers: Employers and America’s Health

The business of health care is moving steadily in the direction of population health and the need to address social determinants of health.

Perhaps all businesses should be, as well — at least when it comes to the population of their workers and the impact the workplace has on employees’ lives.

After all, many of our country’s nearly 130 million full-time workers have highly sedentary jobs, which contribute to the more than eight hours a day that one in four U.S. adults spends sitting. What’s more, chronic diseases — most of which can be prevented, delayed and/or better managed with healthier living habits and conditions — cost $794 billion annually in lost employee productivity alone.

In fact, at the annual Forbes Healthcare Summit, population health and the importance of tackling social determinants of health were in the spotlight. On Day 2, sessions such as “Health Beyond Healthcare: Healthcare Is About Buildings and Food” and “From DNA Code to Zip Code” took center stage.

C-suite executives, including Michael Dowling, president and chief executive of Northwell Health, and Steve Forbes, chairman and editor-in-chief of Forbes Media, spoke out with statements like: “We need to broaden our definition of health” (Dowling) and “There’s more to health than just medicine” (Forbes).

It’s time now for all businesses to get in the game. After all, a healthy workforce not only adds to the individual company’s bottom line, but it’s essential for a thriving U.S. economy overall.

If there’s one thing the business community has learned in this age of unsustainable health care spending, it’s that keeping employees healthy isn’t just the sum of what happens in the doctor’s office.

Setting a workplace culture where healthy habits — including daily physical activity — are supported and encouraged is a critical launching point for a healthier, more prosperous America. All told, employed Americans spend an average of about eight hours each weekday working — plus another 5.5 hours on weekends. The impact that employers — and the business ethos they create — have on the well-being of U.S. workers is undeniable. And it must be leveraged.

Even the smallest of businesses can take some simple measures. On-the-go meetings — walking and talking — can provide much-needed opportunity for physical activity. Building movement breaks into traditional conference room meetings also is easily achievable and costs nothing. Eliminating the “work through lunch and eat at your desk” mindset is critical, as well.

Getting up and away — and taking a walk or exercising during that time — can bring workers back with increased energy and creativity. And sprucing up stairwells with artwork can be just the needed touch to make taking the stairs move inviting.

Importantly, evidence shows that instilling a sustained culture of wellness in the workplace requires a clear commitment from the C-suite — along with engagement among direct supervisors, who can inspire enthusiasm throughout the organization.

In part, it boils down to knowledge. In fact, one study found that adults “were significantly more active when they correctly identified more diseases associated with physical inactivity.” So, on top of providing opportunities for workers to be physically active, businesses can keep them informed of the health perks physical activity brings — while keeping them mindful of the ill effects of sedentary habits.

The new Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, recently issued by the Department of Health and Human Services and highlighted at a congressional briefing hosted by the National Coalition for Promoting Physical Activity, should be a fundamental component of that education. Not only do they spell out recommendations for specific populations, but they advise on explicit health benefits of exercise. In fact, at the NCPPA Capitol Hill event, co-chair of the Physical Activity Guidelines Scientific Advisory Committee, Kenneth E. Powell, MD, MPH, pointed out that regular physical activity helps prevent and/or manage eight of the 10 most expensive medical conditions that Americans face.

It’s true that not every employer is on the same playing field in terms of the benefits it can provide. But whenever possible, if employers can offer tax-free accounts — that is, health savings or flexible spending accounts — they’d be giving their workers an important vehicle to help manage their health expenses.

Plus, if legislation like the Personal Health Investment Today Act is passed, workers will have even more free reign in how they can spend their health care dollars. A pro-prevention bipartisan bill, PHIT would allow hard-working Americans to use these accounts for certain exercise expenses, including fitness equipment, exercise videos, health club memberships and their kids’ youth sports leagues. Individuals would be able to use up to $1,000 each year and families up to $2,000. 

Like it or not, employers are powerful influencers of population health. I urge them to embrace this pivotal role. Use it wisely. And make a positive difference. In time, it will pay dividends.


Helen Durkin, JD, is executive vice president of public policy at the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association and president-elect of the National Coalition for Promoting Physical Activity.

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