Adults spend a significant amount of time at the workplace. The Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates American adults spend 8.9 hours at work or doing work-related activities every day. This time at work often means sitting. And for a lot of people, leisure time hours outside the workplace are devoted to activities that—you guessed it—include sitting. All of this inactivity—along with tobacco use and poor diets—is killing us. Half of adults in the U.S., 117 million people, have a chronic disease such as heart disease, obesity or diabetes.
But why does your company care? Because they share the cost of these conditions. In 2014, 55 percent of the non-elderly U.S. population was insured through an employer-sponsored plan (this figure includes children and spouses covered as dependents). The CDC estimates that obesity and related chronic conditions cost employers $93 billion per year in health insurance claims. More related dollars go out the door as a result of diminished employee productivity, absenteeism, disability and leaves of absence.
So what’s an employer to do? A majority of employers with at least 50 employees have a wellness program. But research into the return on investment for these programs is mixed. A 2014 RAND study showed that, while employers recouped costs for disease management programs (programs that address an employee’s current health issues), they spent more than they saved on lifestyle change programs (programs that address an employee’s risk for future health issues). The likely explanation for this imbalance that the employer sees immediate savings in the healthcare costs of the sick person, because they were already paying for their insurance. The return on the investment for a lifestyle change program could take decades to realize, likely after the company stops insuring the participating individuals.
Still, employers have an interest in bending the healthcare cost curve. But how? Data shows that changes to workplace culture result in the improvement of employee health. Shifting the environmental conditions individuals function within leads to better behaviors, often without people noticing the changes. For example, workplaces can develop policies encouraging physical activity breaks, or offer flexible hours so employees can exercise during the day. Companies can make it the norm to offer healthy foods and beverages in vending machines or on-site cafeterias. Some have gone so far as to eliminate the fryers and soda from their campuses, and create dietary guidelines for food brought in for meetings and conferences.
Although it’s harder to build a culture than invest in a program, these policies and habits might just start to bend the cost curve. And, hey, who doesn’t need a mid-afternoon dance break with Bob from Accounting?!