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Many Workers are Becoming More Fit — but Where Do Employers Fit In?

July 8th, 2010 Comments off

Okay, not every professional eats the healthiest things imaginable (or is free of legal troubles, for that matter) — a la competitive hot dog eater Takeru Kobayashi. However, according to the results of a new CareerBuilder survey of more than 4,400 workers, many folks are reaching less for the potato chips and more for the straight-up potatoes; less for the cigarettes and more for the treadmill. What gives?

The economy has trickled down into many areas of our lives, and our eating habits may be one of the biggest — if somewhat overlooked — of them. While the negative effects of our economy may be a bitter pill to swallow, it looks like our health is getting a boost. Largely because of tightened funds, workers are making more healthy choices — including packing lunches, smoking less, and walking more.

Let’s break it down fast. (Get it? Breakfast?):

  • 47 percent of workers report they are packing a lunch more often to save money or eat healthier.
  • 44 percent of workers who smoke said they are more likely to quit smoking given the state of the economy.
  • One-in-five workers (21 percent) have already decreased the number of times they smoke during the workday — and 20 percent have quit altogether.

And while healthier habits may be fueled by economic hardship, it may have been the trigger many of us needed to start taking a closer look at our personal health habits — and make habit-forming changes.

“Economic stress over the last year has caused some workers to reflect on their habits, and many of them have turned to healthier routines,” said Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources for CareerBuilder.

“In addition to helping cut personal costs, employees who limit their smoking and lunching out habits are taking better care of their overall health. This type of ‘better-for-you’ behavior can be encouraged by companies who implement wellness programs, healthy living challenges or smoking cessation support.”

HOLD. THE. CHEESE PUFFS.

Like most feel-good stories, this one has a dark side, too. While it’s true that many workers are taking the higher healthier road, it’s also true that heavier workloads and added stress associated with a downsized place of employment may have other workers taking a different, more hermit-like, direction.

Lunch breaks — what are those?

If you ask a co-worker “What’s the weather like today?” because you haven’t seen the light of day since dawn and your body has been molded to your chair, you’ll probably relate to the following:

  • Nearly one-third (32 percent) of workers report they take less than a half hour for lunch, while 5 percent take less than 15 minutes.
  • One-in-ten never take a lunch break, and 16 percent report they work right through their lunch hour.
  • Nearly one-in-five (18 percent) typically don’t leave their desks during their lunch break and eat in their workspace 5 days a week.

So, where do employers weigh in?

Whether your employees are going for a carrot-eating world record or reaching for that candy bar (and eating it at the desk from which they don’t move all day), do you as an employer have a right — or a responsibility — to get involved and attempt to influence your employees’ decisions?

Poor employee health has been pointed to as one of the biggest challenges to maintaining affordable benefit coverage. And with new health care reform going into effect, many businesses, particularly smaller ones, will likely be affected, as they may be penalized for not providing health care benefits to their workers. With more businesses who don’t currently offer benefits soon be incentivized to provide them (or penalized if they don’t), what will the effect be on employees? Will there be more of a Big Brother-like trend of keeping employees healthy to keep costs down?

In the “YES” camp

Many of you appear to be promoting employee wellness for various reasons, from what you’ve recently told us. Many companies don’t hide the fact that they are deeply involved in employees’ health not only because it makes their employees healthier and  happier, lowers stress, and promotes team spirit — but also because it benefits the company’s bottom line. And as a recent New York Times article  points out, 50 to 70 percent of the nation’s health care costs are preventable — which means company wellness initiatives could in fact help prevent employees from costly medical procedures. All good things, right?

In the “NO” camp

Well, not so fast. Although corporate wellness programs help companies keep insurance costs down while assisting employees in getting more fit, many people argue that employees’ lifestyle choices shouldn’t be dictated by their employer — and that it’s really none of their business. In addition, by rewarding employees who choose to participate in wellness initiatives, “unhealthy” employees may in effect be punished. For example, although Whole Foods has quite a robust benefits program, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, in a since controversial move, decided to give his employees discounts on health insurance and Whole Foods products if they maintained lower readings for measurements like body mass index (which many people argue is a poor indication of health). While that’s great for employees who manage to stay within the company’s standard of health, what about those who don’t? Or is everyone motivated to get healthier on this type of plan?

So, which camp are you in?

It’s clear that this is a complicated issue, to say the least. There are pros and cons to both sides, but it’s helpful to everyone to keep the conversation going. If you are considering getting involved in wellness as an organization, we’ve rounded up seven habits of highly successful wellness programs to help. And if you’re not, well, we’d love to hear why.