THE BLOG
09/26/2013 03:55 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2013

Healthy Aging for a Sustainable Workforce

Today's employers face many challenges in their efforts to compete with an increasingly global marketplace. For years the cost of health care deservedly grabbed all the headlines as employers struggled to bear the costs of health care. As the American workforce ages in place, employers have become increasingly aware of how chronic illness and poor lifestyle choices impact presenteeism and productivity. Often, it's the more senior members of work teams that play critical roles as the most skilled and seasoned contributors.

Today's wellness programs look to address both of these problems with innovative tools that assist people in choosing healthier lifestyles as well as managing their chronic conditions more successfully.

There are currently more than 76 million "baby boomers," those born between the years of 1946 and 1964, who are growing older and working longer. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the proportion of workers over the age of 55 will increase steadily to 20 percent by 2020. No matter what the reason -- struggling economy, poor 401K performance, continued financial need -- people today are working longer than ever before, a trend that doesn't appear to be going away any time soon.

Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. But with this trend of working well into and past our 50s come a number of new issues that employers need to be more conscious of and carefully consider, specifically, how to keep a young workforce healthy. So the mission is to effectively manage workforces in a way that is mutually beneficial to both employees and the bottom line. And, the only way to address the potential negative impact of both chronic disease and other health issues on the aging U.S. workforce is to create a sustained culture of health -- one that emphasizes the full spectrum of health and wellness of all workers for the duration of their "working lifetimes," not just when they are older.

Evidence continues to mount demonstrating that health behaviors have the single greatest influence on overall health and ultimately, our lives. Yet, according to multiple sources, nearly 67 percent of American adults are overweight or obese, 60 percent don't exercise regularly, and surprisingly, still more than 20 percent smoke. All of which can lead to serious chronic conditions including heart disease, which is the leading cause of death for Americans every year -- more people than all forms of cancer combined -- and Type 2 diabetes, which is a leading cause of death in both men and women in the U.S. These few facts alone go to show that we need to change unhealthy behaviors to healthy behaviors before chronic conditions set in.

How do we do that? A total population health approach that incorporates incentives, education in the form of decision aids, and personalized coaching is critical to success. It ensures that the entire workforce -- including the aging population -- is aware of the significance of good health and well-being, provided with access to the information they need to get more involved in their health and health care decisions, and surrounded by engaging, personalized programs and resources that will shape their attitudes in a way that leads to impactful behavior change to maintain healthy aging. A critical step to inspiring this type of long-term behavior change through integrated health and multi-tiered wellness programs is demonstrating the value of participation to employees. By getting involved and staying involved in these programs, employees will not only become healthier but also reap tangible savings for themselves in the form of lower premiums and reduced overall health care costs. The educational resources and interactions with qualified, registered health professionals allows for a more personalized discussion and understanding of risk factors and methods for improvement. Self-assessments and bio screenings provide an invaluable way for people to benchmark where they are today and then to map out a plan and measure progress. Innovative personalized programs can allow individuals to add to or edit their goals, and select challenges that interest them. Gaming and sharing components also encourage continued engagement, ongoing participation, and achievement of goals. Measurement enables the employer to better identify and target individuals that may need support as well as provide employees with motivation to help them achieve and surpass their personal goals.

As the American workforce continues to age, employers must look to create a true health culture that engages all employees and drives meaningful behavior change in order to fight against spiraling health care costs and the epidemic of poor health. Meaningful, personalized, whole-person engagement ensures that the investment in health and wellness will be maximized for both the companies and people who need it to work. If employers and employees buy in to this, both will be happy and healthy -- and productive -- for years to come.

Peter Goldbach, MD, is the Chief Medical Officer at Health Dialog, a leading provider of health care analytics and decision support. He has 15 years of experience in medical administration and 17 years maintaining a primary care and pulmonary disease practice. He received an undergraduate and master's degree from UCLA and his medical degree from SUNY Downstate Medical Center College of Medicine.

For more by Peter Goldbach, M.D., click here.

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