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Can Workplace Wellness Programs Fix What Ails U.S.?

There is always so much discourse about the condition of our country’s healthcare system. Wouldn’t it be refreshing, and perhaps more rewarding, if as Americans, we were to focus as much energy on the state of our wellness?

Some could argue that we are a rather sickly nation. According to a recent report issued by the US Department of Health and Human Services, among Americans there is an especially high prevalence of risk factors such as tobacco use, high cholesterol, obesity, and insufficient exercise, which are associated with chronic diseases and conditions such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and hypertension. In fact, 45 percent of Americans, almost half the entire adult population, have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes. Even more frightening, 13 percent of Americans have two of these conditions and three percent are struggling with all three. It’s no wonder our healthcare system is so taxed.On a brighter note, however, these conditions can improve with lifestyle changes. To that end, more and more progressive employers are creating workplace wellness programs that promote, and sometimes even reward, healthier lifestyles.

Corporate wellness programs are nothing new. Traditional programs help employees maintain their health and prevent illness by providing education, fitness regimes and regular health screenings to ensure early detection of problems. Many corporate wellness initiatives even include an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to help employees cope with personal or emotional issues that may be affecting their work and family lives.

In addition to delivering positive health benefits to employees, wellness programs yield employers significant benefits as well. Successful programs have been proven to reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and decrease healthcare costs.

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Of course, to be effective wellness programs have to be utilized. Poorly-designed programs can miss their mark if they don’t take into consideration the health needs and interests of the employee population. One Midwestern company, for instance, launched its wellness program by opening a fitness center and implementing a campaign to combat prostate cancer. The gym was a big hit among employees, many of whom already participated in regular exercise, but the prostate screenings were largely ignored. When the company did some after-the-fact analysis, they learned that some 70 percent of their employees were women of childbearing age. They also found that many of their employees were smokers. Obviously, prostate cancer was not a concern for this workforce, but women’s health issues and smoking cessation were.

Conversely, Volkswagen is breaking the mold with a highly-customized wellness initiative designed to take their employees’ performance to the next level. At the company’s new $1 billion assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, newly-hired Volkswagen employees are undergoing on-the-job training in advance of the facility’s production start early next year. As part of their training, assembly line workers are being required to participate in two hours of fitness training each day. The fitness program, which is specifically-designed to help individual workers develop the strength and endurance necessary to meet the physical demands of their particular job, is intended to create “industrial athletes” who are able to grip, lift, bend and push without tiring. (Volkswagen has no intention of instituting a weight threshold for assembly line jobs, but some workers who initially resented Volkswagen’s required fitness training have lost as much as 30 pounds in a matter of weeks.)

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Corporate wellness initiatives are usually voluntary, so mandating that employees participate in customized fitness programs so they can better perform their jobs is a provocative concept that could gain traction over time, especially if American’s persistent health issues, such as obesity or high blood pressure, make physical labor difficult or even dangerous. For the time being however, companies are doing well if they can build a wellness program that permeates the corporate culture and genuinely advocates for and promotes employees’ health and wellbeing.

When creating or redesigning a program, employers should try to adopt several best practices: 1.) assess your workforce’s health needs and put them before any personal cause or passion; 2.) consider the whole employee to address all areas of wellness, including physical fitness, disease prevention and detection, and emotional wellbeing; 3.) create a work environment where wellness is pervasive, going beyond the fitness center or health fair to include snacks and drinks available in the vending machines; and 4.) consider incentivizing employees to take advantage of wellness initiatives by holding workout or weight loss contests or offering small give-a-ways for participating in health screenings.

Corporate wellness initiatives cannot fix our healthcare system, but cultivating a more health-conscious culture, not just within one company but throughout our country, could certainly lead Americans to be less reliant on our already over-taxed healthcare system.

John Allen, is President and COO of G&A Partners, a Texas-based HR and Administrative Services company that manages human resources, benefits, payroll, accounting and risk management for growing businesses. For more information about the company, visit

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