11/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Wellness is the Responsibility of Business as Well as Worker

No matter what your position is on the health care debate, almost everyone seems to agree that the path we are on is an untenable route to increasing costs and diminishing returns. New data show American workers are getting less healthy each year, and this obviously will increase health care costs. The good news is that employers and employees can help contain these costs, in cost-effective and straightforward ways.

"The State of Health in the American Workforce," a report that Kerstin Aumann and I co-authored and released today from the Families and Work Institute (FWI), finds that only 28% of employees today report that their overall health is "excellent," down from 34% just six years ago.

The report also reveals:

  • 41% of employees report experiencing three or more indicators of stress sometimes, often or very often;

  • One in three employees experiences one or more symptoms of clinical depression; and
  • One in five employees has trouble falling asleep very often or fairly often and 31% awaken too early and have trouble falling back to sleep, also very often or fairly often.
  • 21% are receiving treatment for high blood pressure and 14% are being treated for high cholesterol.
  • Because two-thirds of employees are enrolled in the health insurance their employers provide, these findings must be considered in the health care reform debate. Employees who are enrolled in health insurance through their employer -- or through another source -- are also significantly less likely to plan to seek another job and report better physical and mental health than those who do not have health insurance coverage through their jobs or from another source. To be well and to do well, employees need health insurance.

    Not surprisingly, household income level makes a big difference when it comes to both access to and enrollment in health insurance. Low-wage/low-income employees are less likely to have access to employer health insurance and are also less likely to enroll in insurance from another source. This is an alarming catch-22 because even if they can access company health plans, low-wage/low-income employees are also less likely to receive employer contributions to offset the cost of insurance. They are thus less likely to enroll in their organization's plan.

    On the bright side, employer policies fostering employee engagement and satisfaction are associated with better employee health. Examples of these policies include giving employees a say about how to do their jobs and providing flexible scheduling options. FWI finds that 38% of employees in workplaces that we classify as having "high overall effectiveness" (based on six measurable criteria: economic security, autonomy, work-life fit, job challenge and learning, supervisor task support and a climate of respect) report "excellent overall health." By contrast, only 19% of employees in workplaces in the "low overall effectiveness" category report "excellent overall health."

    Our findings serve as a wake-up call for employers and employees alike to take a closer look at how their organizations affect people's health and well-being. Employees' physical and mental health, stress levels, sleep quality and energy levels all significantly impact important work outcomes of interest to employers, such as engagement, turnover intent and job satisfaction.

    Employers are well aware that wellness programs can make a difference but are much less aware that effective workplaces should be considered as an integral part of promoting wellness. Although the provision of health care is expensive, providing most aspects of effective workplaces is not.

    Every workplace, small or large, can undertake efforts to treat employees with respect, give them some autonomy over how they do they jobs, help supervisors support employees to succeed in their jobs, and help supervisors and coworkers promote work-life fit. Providing economic security is more complex, especially during a period of business downturn, but ensuring that there is open and regular communication about the financial state of the organization can help employees weather economic storms. Similarly, organizations should not forget that access to good benefits and opportunities for career advancement affect employees' feelings of economic security. Finally, providing reasonable challenges and learning opportunities can have a positive effect on employee engagement and job satisfaction.

    In addition, organizations can promote wellness by monitoring overwork and providing and encouraging employees to take their vacations.

    As employees we have a responsibility too. It is disturbing to find, for example, that nearly half of U.S. employees (49%) have not engaged in regular physical exercise in the last 30 days, including 22% not engaging in any rigorous physical exercise. We also need to look closely at the extent to which our jobs contribute to or hinder our personal well-being. This includes not only employer policies about paid sick time, vacation or health insurance, but also the very nature and design of our jobs and workplaces.
    The message is clear that beyond any reform measures on the table in Washington, it is urgent for employers and employees to pay attention to how they can promote better health, which ultimately will save money.

    Both employers and employees need to take responsibility for improving the health of the American workforce. Health care reform won't work without it.

    Read the full FWI study here.[pdf]