Viewpoint: Target Unhealthy Behaviors for Healthier Bottom Lines

Chronic conditions can be prevented or managed more effectively

By Wade Overgaard, Kaiser Permanente Apr 16, 2012
Wade Overgaard

Chronic conditions—including diabetes, asthma and obesity—account for more than 75 percent of health care spending in the U.S., and that can be an expensive proposition for employers.

Studies have shown that chronic conditions can add about $3,600 a year per person to employer health care costs.

Fortunately, many of these chronic conditions can be prevented or managed more effectively by leading healthier lives. Employers can play an important role in this effort by encouraging workers to get routine screenings, promoting physical activity in the workplace and providing healthier options in vending machines and cafeterias.

Well-structured, evidence-based wellness programs can have a real impact on a company’s bottom line and can help control health care costs for everyone. Focusing on an employee’s total health can lead to a more-energetic, productive workforce that can give companies a competitive edge.

Using Aggregated Data

There are many resources to help employers find ways to get their workforce healthier. For some businesses, the information that can be generated from electronic medical records (EMRs) can help make prevention more of a reality. EMRs can provide aggregated high-level data that gives an overall snapshot of employee health. The businesses must be large enough—100 employees or more—so that this aggregated data does not reveal personal health information about individual employees.

Those businesses can ask their health care providers and insurers to determine the share of employees who smoke, have high cholesterol and have high blood pressure. With this information, ranked to show which problems are most severe in the workplace, employers can offer targeted health programs and activities aimed at preventing chronic conditions.

Taking Targeted Approaches

If the majority of employees are overweight, it makes sense to offer a wellness program that promotes healthier eating. If there are a large number of smokers, an in-house smoking cessation program would be in order.

Controlling health care costs requires a multipronged, integrated effort that goes beyond the medical providers and health insurer trying to prevent chronic diseases, though. Employers need to emphasize and reinforce consistently healthy lifestyles in the workplace and model behavior.

Employers can start small. When eating with employees, order a salad instead of a cheeseburger. With small groups, hold “walking” staff meetings. Even better: Start a walking program to encourage employees to get more physical exercise (see the benefits of regular walking at There’s even a smart phone app to help track those workplace walks.

Taking this step-by-step approach can turn the workplace into a “wellplace.”

Simple Steps for Better Health

Physical activity can reduce the risk of chronic conditions and reduce medical costs by as much as 55 percent, according to Kaiser Permanente. Below are more easy ways to improve health and productivity in the workplace:

  • Promote walking meetings and lunchtime walks.
  • Clean and brighten stairways so employees can use the stairs.
  • Set aside an exercise area or invite a fitness instructor to offer a class at work.
  • Create a company walking challenge or sports team to foster physical activity.
  • Install bicycle storage racks to encourage employees to ride to work.
  • Encourage employees to eat healthy and get physically active as a means to reduce stress.

Wade Overgaard is Kaiser Permanente’s senior vice president for California Health Plan Operations.

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