Creating a healthy workplace is a common goal these days. To achieve it, employers and employees must be mindful of big and small steps that can add up to better health.
“It’s important to think about health at work, given the number of hours spent there each week,” says Jeffrey R. Harris, MD, MPH, MBA, and chair of the Department of Health Services at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health. Dr. Harris also heads up the Workplace Health Recognition Committee for the American Heart Association.
“It’s where 160 million Americans go every day. We spend a lot of time in the workplace,” Harris states. “And most people eat at least one meal, or sometimes more, during their work day.”
Work also is where many Americans get their health insurance. Beyond acting as a simple safety net for emergencies, those benefits can help get you on the right track to good heart health and overall health.
But employees have to act. “Know what your preventive benefits are and use them,” Harris adds.
Encouraging health at the office
Today’s health insurance plans typically cover free annual exams with basic screenings for things like blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Employees can take advantage of health savings accounts, health reimbursement accounts, or flexible spending accounts to assist with paying additional out-of-pocket medical costs, with possible tax savings.
To promote health in the workplace, the AHA helps assess work environments and offers ways for workers to learn about Life’s Simple 7 — seven factors that can have a major impact on heart health. These include quitting smoking, controlling cholesterol, reducing blood sugar, managing blood pressure, losing weight, eating nutritious foods, and staying physically active.
“Everyday actions, such as parking farther away from the office to encourage more walking can help boost physical activity,” says Harris. Modifications to your work area like a standing desk can allow for more movement and less sedentary time, as well.
Some workplaces have banned sugar-sweetened beverages in vending machines to foster better health, he added.
Getting rid of barriers
“Employees can sometimes encounter barriers to care in their health insurance plans, even if seemingly small,” explains Harris. A $10 co-pay for blood pressure medication may sound inexpensive to some, but for lower-income employees it could prevent the purchase of the prescription.
Look for ways to make the most of some of the perks that can come with workplace health coverage, such as covering the cost of over-the-counter nicotine patches for quitting smoking.
Telephone-based counseling and smart phone apps also can make the most of technology and provide easy options for employees seeking help in making healthy choices, Harris added.
Meanwhile, obstacles to mental health treatment remain, too. More than 40 leading chief executives recently issued a report offering strategies to raise awareness and help employees manage mental health. The executives said mental health should receive the same attention as physical health.
Workplace wellness programs
So it’s important to read the fine print and find out what’s available to you. Many programs may include health assessments, financial incentives, and help with smoking cessation, weight management, stress reduction, or other lifestyle changes.
While their primary goal is to improve employees’ quality of life through better health, workplace health initiatives also can help your employer. They can boost productivity, decrease absenteeism, and lower healthcare costs for employers.
The direct medical costs of cardiovascular disease are higher than those of any other disease and include hospital and physician services, prescription drugs, and services such as home health or nursing home care. They are expected to reach $749 billion by 2035. Indirect costs, including days lost from work, are expected to reach $368 billion by then.
Harris said more research is needed on how programs impact health improvements and cost reductions.
Research has found that widespread implementation of comprehensive programs is lacking. A recent study indicated that these programs continue to be a work in progress and that companies should consider more targeted approaches.4
As an employee or manager, you can be a voice to help company leaders at every level embrace policies that promote good health and are “rolling in the same direction,” Harris added. The strongest programs create a “culture of health,” according to research.
Make the most of benefits — and behavior
As an employee, be aware of all the benefits provided by your employer, whether it’s a medical checkup, a smoking cessation plan, or getting a flu shot each year.
Though many employers and health plans offer the flu vaccine for free, participation could be higher, Harris added. “If you have cardiovascular disease, flu can really push you over the edge and even kill you.”
If there’s a gym or yoga class on the premises or if the company pays for gym memberships, take advantage! You don’t need to be a gym rat to find a little time to get physically active during the day.
Friends at work can influence behavior, so find ways to make exercise and healthy eating on the job a social activity.
Walking is the most convenient form of exercise. So, step out for a stroll during your lunch break — perhaps with co-workers — or park farther from your office building to get in some extra steps. Look for ways to sneak in bits of movement during the day, whether it’s stretching at your desk or taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
“Little things matter,” Harris said. “Those little things add up.”
Check out this infographic on Workday Workouts to help you sneak in some exercise at work.
Things to Consider:
- Find out what your preventive health benefits are through your job and make use of them
- Check to see if telephone counseling or smart phone apps are available to you to help support healthy lifestyle changes
- Look for little ways, perhaps with co-workers, to boost your health through diet and physical activity during the work day
 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019
 “Workplace Health,” American Heart Association, 2019
 “Top CEOs Offer Strategies to Improve Workplace Mental Health,” American Heart Association, 2019
 “Workplace Wellness Programs Barely Move the Needle, Study Finds,” Kaiser Health News, 2019
 “CDC: Half of Workplaces Offer Health/Wellness Programs,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019
 “Workplace Health Model,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016
 “Cardiovascular Disease: A Costly Burden for America,” American Heart Association, 2017
 “Workplace Wellness Recognition for Optimizing Workplace Health,” Circulation, 2015
 Transamerica Center for Health Studies, 2018