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Recession Provides 'Teachable Moment' for Wellness

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, June 1, 2009

I write a lot about wellness programs because I believe in them. If we are going to alleviate some of the staggering healthcare costs associated with a large and aging workforce, we have to correct many of the poor lifestyle choices we've made over the last few decades. For the sake of the younger workers who'll be saddled with our healthcare bills, we have a civic duty to live healthier lives, and the recession is providing tough motivation for many people to reevaluate their health status.

Front-line experts I've interviewed—the people on the hospital grounds, in the corridors and cafeterias who make these wellness programs work—say everybody wins if you leverage financial incentives like reduced health insurance premiums to nudge your employees to adopt healthy habits like moderate exercise and some diet modification.

Your employees are healthier and happier, grateful, and even a little wealthier with their reduced healthcare costs. Your company sees almost immediate return on investment in the form of reduced sick leaves and loss of productivity, and reduced long-term healthcare costs, particularly for treating obesity and other lifestyle-related diseases like diabetes, high-blood pressure, and osteoarthritis.

If you've yet to adopt a wellness program, now might be the best time. A new survey by the National Business Group on Health found that the recession is having a mixed impact on the way some American workers at large companies view their own healthcare maintenance.

The bad news is that more than one-in-four workers of the 1,500 workers surveyed in March report forgoing healthcare treatments to save money on copayments or coinsurance costs, and many report additional mental stress and anxiety. The better news is that more than half of the responding workers say that living a healthy lifestyle was more of a priority for them than it was one year ago.

"These data confirm that the widespread economic anxiety is cascading onto individual workers' health and well-being," says NBGH President Helen Darling. "The data also show that workers are more aligned with businesses about cost concerns and that individuals are taking demonstrable steps to improve their own personal health. For workers, businesses, and policymakers, this environment presents a 'teachable moment' to inculcate a renewed culture of health, including making healthier food choices and increased exercise."

This recession is a real drag. I don't want to sound glib with dismissive smiley-faced bromides about making "lemonade out of lemons" in the middle of a meltdown that has caused so much grief. But, we're all getting older, and we've known for years that we'd have to start taking better care of our health. Maybe this recession will be the impetus for change.

This dire economic environment is an ideal time to provide your employees with the tools and incentives they need to address their own health. They want to lose weight. They want to quit smoking. They want to eat healthier foods. They want to manage their stress. They need it. They deserve it. Your business will see the immediate and long-term benefits. What are you waiting for?


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John Commins is a senior editor with HealthLeaders Media.

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