As we continue to make medical and technological advances, it would be natural to expect our quality of health to follow suit. Unfortunately, that hasn't been the case. Through busy lifestyles, poor diets and lack of exercise, we grossly neglect our health -- and the consequences match that neglect.
There's no sugar coating it; we're an unhealthy mess. Obesity and chronic illnesses are reaching new heights. Two out of every three adults are overweight or obese. Nearly two million new cases of diabetes are diagnosed each year. One in three Americans have high blood pressure. These factors put our health at risk and are causing insurance costs to spiral out of control.
According to a Towers Perrin survey, health care costs nationwide were projected to hit $2.2 trillion in 2008. That came to about an average of $9,312 per worker just for health care services alone. It's a major expense for corporations across the country. To combat these spiraling costs, companies were forced to step in and take drastic measures. They responded by taking a more proactive approach. They're employing health coaches in an effort to shut down the bad habits that make workers more expensive to cover. For example, obesity adds $1,500 to the cost of an employee's health premium. Smoking adds $1,850. By incorporating wellness programs to support their workers' goals to quit smoking or lose weight, companies are hoping to reduce long-term costs.
This movement caught on like wildfire. Hewitt Associates, a human resources consulting firm, conducted a survey of 450 major American corporations. According to the survey, 67 percent of these companies already have or plan to implement coaching or prevention programs to boost the health of their employees, CNBC reported .
The incentives are obvious. It isn't just about reducing insurance costs -- although that is certainly a major factor. These companies also hope to increase worker happiness and productivity -- mindsets that pay dividends for both the worker and the corporation. Michael Mullen, Director of Global Corporate Affairs at H.J. Heinz Co., said in an email to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "We believe healthy and fit employees are always more productive, and that is good for both the employee and the company."
Delivery giant UPS has been offering health coaching to its employees for over six years. It was one of the first companies to try this approach. UPS hires outside firms to go through employee medical records looking for red flags. The company then reaches out to at-risk employees in an effort to get their problems under control. The program is voluntary. And, while some workers are hesitant to come aboard, those who have are adamant about its benefits. Myrtha Suralie, who works at UPS' New York sales office, told CNBC that the coaching program "makes me more upbeat and more relaxed."
Since then, many other companies have jumped on the bandwagon, offering more wellness-focused programs. Law firm Rothman Gordon spent $3,750 for health club privileges for its 31 lawyers and over 30 support personnel. The firm also provides crates of fresh fruit as healthy snack alternatives for its workers and sponsors a "Biggest Loser" type game to motivate its staff to get into shape.
Del Monte established an onsite fitness center available to over 550 of its workers. The company has also set up lunchtime running and walking clubs that trek through convenient riverfront trails, set up a test kitchen where a nutritionist offers healthy cooking demonstrations, and distributes its own no-sugar fruit cups and other healthy snacks to employees.
Studies show that these programs have been successful. Pittsburgh-based insurer Highmark Inc. found that for every dollar spent on wellness programs, employers saved an average $1.65 in health care expenses. That's the average! Some companies were able to save much more. For example, Citibank saw a return of $4.56 for every dollar spent on its health management program, according to a study conducted by the American Institute for Preventive Medicine. Johnson & Johnson conducted a massive 4-year wellness program that involved more than 18,000 workers. Its efforts paid off, as the program ended up saving the company $8.5 million a year in reduced health care costs, according to the study.
While setting up these programs definitely requires some foresight, the numbers don't lie. With so many companies cashing in on the cost-cutting benefits, it's hard to imagine this movement fizzling out any time soon -- and that's great news for our future.
Better health at lower costs. What's not to like?