The Chamber recently spoke with LeVar Johnson, a Community Activist working within the Pharmaceutical Industry, about employers’ roles in handling obesity within the workplace ahead of his participation in our Wellness in the Workforce Part 2 event on April 25th. Physical health is a personal mission for Johnson, who was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at the age of 4. Through the guidance and support of his mother, a registered nurse, and his father, a hardworking business leader, he learned to not only live with his disease, but also thrive alongside it as the first Type 1 Diabetes scholarship football player (Duke University). He carries those skills into his work with non-profit, political and healthcare organizations throughout the Mid-Atlantic Region. In his words:
As executives, we must collectively ask ourselves if our organizations can’t afford to invest in our employees’ health and wellness now, how do we think we will fare when we lose productivity in the future? After all, a single employee’s health can be the deciding factor in an organization’s bottom line. A healthy workforce equates to a stronger organization, making employee wellness a business concern.
In business, we value employee productivity and its correlation with profitability, yet all too often the health-related, personal struggle path to that productivity is overlooked. Mounting insurance claims, absences, and sluggishness are all by-products of an unhealthy workforce. Today’s savvy employers are prioritizing employee health support, not solely for its financial benefits, but also from a cultural standpoint. The need for employers’ commitment to wellness is particularly true when we discuss the often misunderstood disease, obesity, and its rapidly growing prevalence within our modern workplace.
It takes a disciplined employer to first recognize and then foster a culture that incorporates employee wellness. It begins with leadership that models the organization with its employees’ health in mind. Obesity is a perfect situation where an employer’s support can benefit all. I say this because, despite the evidence surrounding obesity and that our society is facing an all-time high in terms of the percentage of obese adults within our population, there remains a bias against those battling the disease. This will not change until society, including employers, recognize and accept that obesity is a chronic disease, not a state that can be modified by simply eating less food. This mind shift is in everyone’s best interests as obesity’s health impact is tremendous: it contributes to over 200 health vulnerabilities such as diabetes, heart disease and hypertension.
Which brings me back to workplace culture. Healthy organizations prioritize health awareness amongst their employees and help battle bias within the workplace. They embrace that employee wellness is part of their organizational culture and take extra steps to provide employee support. I encourage every employer to take a deeper look at their organization’s overall employee health needs and to provide ongoing education and programs that promote employee health. I’ve seen organizations achieve this through:
- Prioritizing nutrition. This can include offering healthier options in organization meal settings and providing nutritional education about simple changes like adding more fruit to one’s diet or drinking water rather than sodas to boost overall health.
- Providing health-related discounts for gym memberships or nutrition-related counseling services.
- Encouraging wellness checks that provide weight-loss rewards such as gift cards or discounts on insurance premiums.
- Promoting employee health awareness. The most successful wellness programs I’ve witnessed have corporate-wide internal campaigns themed monthly on a single health issue. The CEOs will provide a monthly message to explain the importance of supporting that health issue, employees are encouraged to participate in social events and the employer sponsors programs that raise money to support that issue’s research and awareness.
- Ensuring employees have adequate medical insurance that covers diseases like obesity. In some cases, this requires little more than checking a box.
The outcome of these employer-led programs is that employees learn to embrace a personal approach to protecting their own health. Through education, employees learn to assess their own health based on facts, not what they see in society. For example, obesity’s growing numbers may skew perception that it’s a normal state and not a health risk. Through education, employees can become accountable for their own health and:
- Go to the doctor for regular checkups. Through these checkups, they will learn their baseline numbers and understand and track their blood pressure, cholesterol, and weight. Regular visits will help with early detection and can prevent future ailments.
- Track their exercise and movement levels. In addition to regular exercise, adding simple steps like parking farther away from the office or using stairs instead of elevators can add to their overall health.
- Modify their nutritional intake. I cannot stress the importance of choosing zucchini over french fries enough!
- Understand their impact. Poor health can lead to more than personal struggles. It can create a burden on others such as family members and co-workers.
- Create a circle of support for themselves and others. Living healthy should be a shared experience. For example, my life as an adult with diabetes would be far more difficult without the ongoing support I receive from my wife and children. Their decision to eat healthier meals and exercise together benefits my needs while helping us all stay healthy. My family has made my diabetes a part of our family’s culture, and they remain ever-conscious of what’s in our environment that could tempt me to make unhealthy choices.
As obesity numbers within our workforce grow, employers can no longer afford to ignore its role as a business concern. Creating a culture that incorporates employee wellness will not only help employees find paths to better health but will in turn lead to a stronger organization overall.