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How to Have Heart-Healthy Workplaces

Consider these initiatives to improve employees’ cardiovascular health during American Heart Month in February

Cardiogram pulse trace with red heart on pastel blue background

Here’s a statistic that might cause your blood pressure to rise: In 2018, heart disease and stroke caused $147 billion in lost workplace productivity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Given that heart-pumping figure, many HR professionals have stepped up efforts to improve cardiovascular health among their employees. For example, HR departments at the University of Michigan, Columbia University and Washington University in St. Louis have published employee guides with heart-healthy advice and resources.

Workplaces “are a natural place to improve heart health,” the CDC noted. “The chance of developing cardiovascular disease is 50 [percent] at age 45, which represents a significant portion of the workforce.”

The University of Michigan has particularly taken this issue to heart.

The university provides a confidential health questionnaire through its MHealthy Portal. This year, it’s offering a $75 incentive to any active, benefits-eligible faculty and staff members who visit the portal, complete the questionnaire and set a health goal by May 31.

Leadership adviser and executive coach Bill Catlette suggests that employers follow Michigan’s lead by offering financial incentives, in addition to covering workers’ annual physical exams and reimbursing for heart-monitoring devices.

Outside of higher education, Bank of America encourages its employees to adopt heart-healthy lifestyles through continuous education, resources and benefits. It also urges employees to establish healthy sleep routines, stop smoking or vaping, eat a healthy diet, and carve out 150 minutes for physical activity each week.

“As we celebrate American Heart Month, it’s important that we also remember to amplify these messages throughout the entire year,” said Erika Duncan, senior vice president and business support executive for global human resources at Bank of America.

Erin Lau, director of HR service operations for the Northeast region at HR services provider Insperity, said supporting heart health in the workplace may be as simple as offering health insurance if your organization doesn’t already do so.

“Access to good preventive medical care is extremely important for heart health, especially for employees with pre-existing conditions like high blood pressure,” she said. “Of course, even if employees have access to preventive care, they need to use it.”

If your organization needs to remind employees about benefits related to heart health, Lau recommends hosting a heart health workshop or sending a relevant email. Messaging might include reminding employees to schedule annual physicals and talk to their doctor about the heart-related effects of newly prescribed medications.

Lau also suggests strengthening physical activity among your employees.

“Most office workers are sedentary during their workday, but even small amounts of physical activity can make a huge difference to health,” she said. “For instance, offices with nearby walking areas could encourage employees to take short walks over their lunch break or turn a meeting into a walk.”

Your workplace might even sponsor a “friendly” walking challenge to encourage physical activity and build camaraderie, Lau said. Or it could supply a monthly wellness stipend to help pay for gym memberships or fitness classes.

Lau and the CDC give these additional tips:

  • Set up a workplace gym.
  • Create flexible schedules so employees can more easily fit in exercise.
  • Focus on healthy food. While organizations don’t need to police employees’ diets or stop serving cake at office celebrations, they might consider providing healthy options at workplace gatherings, such as a fruit platter alongside a birthday cake, said Lau.
  • Host a contest for creating healthy recipes.
  • Offer onsite classes for people who want to give up cigarettes and other tobacco products.
  • Set up blood pressure monitors at work.
  • Provide racks for those who want to commute by bike.
  • Spruce up stairwells to entice workers to use the stairs rather than elevators.
  • Stock vending machines with healthy food and beverages.
  • Conduct assessments to help detect risk factors for heart disease and stroke.

The CDC notes that promoting heart health in the workplace need not cost a lot. For example, local organizations such as public health agencies, hospitals and nonprofits will often provide speakers and materials for heart health efforts.

“The workplace has increasingly become a focus for heart disease and stroke prevention management because, on average, people in the United States spend more than a third of their waking hours engaged in their work,” according to the CDC. “Employers can take an active role in promoting employee heart and brain health by implementing best practices for lowering employees’ risk for heart disease and stroke.”

John Egan is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas.


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