• Mike Wahl Ph.D.

Reducing Wellness Risk

How is your organization protecting against health related risk in your workforce?


What are your key performance indicators for your wellness program?

All too often, we take note of our health only once symptoms of injury or illness have already taken hold. This reactionary model then leaves us scrambling to resolve health problems that have already affected our work and home lives. By taking a preventive approach to health and wellness, we enable ourselves to take control of our health and subsequently manage injury or illness, before they become health problems.


In the context of the workplace, health risk prevention programs do exactly this. Very often referred to as "workplace wellness”, health risk prevention takes into account the worker, the job, and the environment with the aim of preventing unnecessary injury or illness. The first step to building a successful health risk prevention program? Understanding the goal - employee wellness.


DEMYSTIFYING “WELLNESS”


In recent years, the term “wellness” has expanded to incorporate all aspects of a person’s life at work and at home. This includes areas of well being ranging from physical, mental, and social, to spiritual health. And in this age where talk of “wellness” has jumped to the top of all news feeds, the lack of a clear definition has left many feeling desensitized to its significance.


When it comes to the especially foggy space of wellness in the workplace, corporate leadership teams are often left wondering how some organizations have it all figured out, while others continue to miss the mark. The secret to successful employee wellness programs? Relevance, effectiveness and the ability to measure results. Relevance to the needs of the workforce, engagement as a result of interest, and measurable program effectiveness are all qualities that wellness programs need to possess. Without a true understanding of the needs of an organization, corporate wellness programs are doomed to fail.


In order to develop a workplace wellness program that achieves effective health risks prevention, you have to first understand the issues at hand. Ask yourself, what challenges do employees face on a personal, occupational and environmental level? For example, based on worker demographics you may find there is a greater percentage of a certain age category, gender, or geographic location, which may be associated with different health conditions or risks. You may also find that some employees have overly physical jobs while others are more sedentary in their day to day. These different profiles will require varied approaches to nutrition and physical health programs.


You may also find that, in order to support healthy behavior, problems with work environments may need to be addressed. For example, remote work sites may have limited access to exercise facilities or fresh food, as well as barriers to social and mental well being due to isolation. By clearly defining the issues faced by your particular workplace, you will lay the groundwork for a customized health risk prevention program that suits the particular needs of each employee and the workforce as a whole.


CHOOSING EFFECTIVE STRATEGIES


Once you’ve determined the wellness related challenges within your company, you need to take action. However, taking action can often be the most difficult step for organizations to take. They don’t know where to start!


At the outset of any health risk prevention program, the most important aspect is education. Through educating your workforce you will empower them to understand how they, in their own unique ways, can improve their individual health. This involves a few key steps. The first is improving health literacy.


Health literacy provides individuals with information on what challenges they are facing or will face in the future. This can include the assessment of cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugars which educate employees about their cardiovascular risk profile. Perhaps it’s a simple waist circumference measurement, complimented with information on how central obesity can relate to health status. Or maybe awareness is linked to something they already understand like their occupation – where the physical challenges of their job are translated to the worker.


Once awareness is reached, education that provides employees with actionable tactics for at home and/or at work about individual health risk prevention should continue over time and support small but realistic changes in healthy behavior. Lastly, in order to shift a workforce to a culture of wellness, organizations need to embed health risk prevention programing into day to day operations. This can be achieved by modifying the work environment to support healthy choices while leadership re-enforces health programming by encouraging employees to engage in the programs at work and home.


MEASURE SUCCESS


Measurement of effectiveness is the most consistent challenge that organizations face when it comes to health risk prevention programming. Health risk prevention programs are often rolled out, engagement seems good however there are no bench marks from which to measure effectiveness and eventually the program dies off due to lack of results. For a program to be successful, key performance indicators on a variety of aspects of the program need to be determined at outset, and then subsequently tracked. Additionally, participation should be monitored to ensure engagement, while also monitoring absenteeism, injury, medical premiums and short and long term disability.


Good data paints a picture of how well a health risk prevention program is doing. It can also be used to translate financial and operational benefits and yielding clarity as to the effectiveness and ultimately the value of a program. Data can also be shared with employees in the form of success stories, collective milestones, and improved safety performance which further re-enforces engagement and integrates the culture of health risk prevention into daily work life.


DON’T BOIL THE OCEAN


One last bit of advice – don’t try to boil the ocean or expect unanimous participation! Implementing an effective health risk prevention program involves shifting the culture of the organization to one which encourages individuals to pursue health on their own terms. The goal for the organization should be to provide a variety of access points to the employee which promotes health risk prevention in a manner relevant to the individual and their occupation by creating an environment where wellness is supported.


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