Improving Employee Health Requires Social Solutions

By Stephen Miller, CEBS Sep 27, 2013

NEW ORLEANS—The need to take a broad view of employee health was the topic of a keynote panel at the 2013 EBN Benefits Forum and Expo, held Sept. 22-24.

The panel looked at collective opportunities to achieve "meaningful, sustainable and replicable improvements" in the health of individuals, businesses and communities.

"As the cost of U.S. health care approaches $3 trillion a year, now is the time to shift from a narrow focus on treatment, access and behavior to a comprehensive look at the causes of illness and disease that drive people into the health care system in the first place," saidDavid Whitehouse, M.D., chief medical officer at UST Global. For instance, "Often, the cognitive brain is held hostage by the emotional brain," resulting in stress, fatigue and depression. Treating the symptoms is insufficient; the focus must be on the individual’s well-being and, "by necessity, on the broader social context" affecting the workforce.

Confronting Social Factors

"Health plus positive attitude equals increased productivity, creativity and satisfaction, which in turn increase business success," notedGary Earl, founder and team captain of the 2013 Journey for Health Tour, a 45-day, 3,200-mile bicycle trek across America whose goal is to motivate individuals, businesses and communities to improve health. The tour began Aug. 22 in California and finishes Oct. 7 in New York (Earl joined the panel via large-screen video and telephonic hookup).

A former vice president of benefits and health care at Caesars Entertainment Corp., Earl stressed the need to change perceptions so that health is seen as an asset, rather than an expense. "You can't improve individual health without understanding social factors" that lead to conditions such as obesity, diabetes and hypertension—three of the largest drives of health care costs—he said.

Beyond the 'Buzz'

"Consumerismandhigh-deductible health plansare not, by themselves, the answer," added Peter Dandalidies, M.D., the CEO of Trend Tech LLC, referring to the latest "high buzz" solutions to runaway health care costs and misdirected use of services. Consumerism is "not a one-trick pony that works every time. The same is true withdefined contribution health careandprivate exchanges—early results are encouraging, but they are only part of the answer."

There is 30 percent overuse of health services in the market today, Dandalidies noted. He recalled a smoker with cluster headaches who was seeking medical relief. Even though cluster headaches are linked to smoking, the man was seeing doctor after doctor to obtain a cure while not addressing his smoking habit. "What tobacco-cessation resources were not being provided or promoted by the health system paying for all these doctor visits?" Dandalidies asked.

Citing approaches that have proved effective in treating individuals within their social context, he said "Patient-centered medical homesandonsite clinicscan be part of the answer."

"Physicians traditionally treat patients one at a time and ignore population-based health issues that require treatment in a social context," Dandalidies observed. Overeaters, for instance, tend to socialize with other overeaters. "The social context impacts health quality, service and cost."

Addressing the health care crisis requires "taking things to the next level," Dandalidies advised. He encouraged employers to work with local business groups to improve community health.

Added Whitehouse, "We need to work together collaboratively to improve problems of our own cause."

Work Environments Affect Health

A wealth of research connects poor work environments—those with highly stressful jobs, long hours and irregular shifts—with employee health consequences such as sleeping problems, fatigue, anxiety, stomach problems and related ailments. According toa recent study by the nonprofit Integrated Benefits Institute (IBI), employers that want to increase their focus on health-related job performance and its impact on the bottom line should broaden their view from the individual health of employees to additional organizational factors, including health culture and employee well-being.

“When employers understand that organizational factors influence not only the health of their workers but also their performance and contribution to the company, they can take steps to improve the lives of their workers and their bottom lines at the same time,” said IBI President Tom Parry (see the SHRM Online article "Health Culture Shown to Improve Employee Performance").

Stephen Miller, CEBS, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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