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Employee Wellness Programs Should be Designed for All

 |  By John Commins  
   January 31, 2011

The American Hospital Association issued a report this month on the status of wellness programs at the nation’s hospitals. It’s worth reading, even though the findings are less than encouraging.

As my HealthLeaders Media colleague Cheryl Clark notes, the AHA’s report, A Call to Action: Creating a Culture of Health, finds that most healthcare systems in the U.S. offer wellness programs of varying intensity and enthusiasm to their employees. Few, however, measure outcomes and fewer still have engrained healthy behaviors as part of their employees’ culture.

That sounds discouraging, but it shouldn’t be. The wellness movement in the workplace is a relatively new but simple concept: Improving employee health will reduce the growth of healthcare costs, and other ancillary costs, like absenteeism. The problem is not the wellness concept. That’s easy. Tens of millions of people who’ve tried to lose weight, or take up exercise, or quit smoking to improve their health understand the importance and desirability of wellness.

The problem is changing people’s less-than-healthy habits, like poor diet or sedentary lifestyle, learned over decades, and reinforced in everyday life – mostly during the two-thirds of the day that they’re away from work. (That’s why they’re called "habits," after all.) These habits took years to develop and it’s unrealistic to think that people will change their lives in the span of a few weeks or months with a "biggest loser" diet contest or discount rates at the local gym.

John Bluford, CEO of Truman Medical Center which has 4,000 employees in Kansas City, wrote the AHA report, and he was spot on when he told HealthLeaders Media: "This is not the program of the month. It’s a culture," and "You can’t do this for a year and think it’s a done deal."  

In addition to the many suggestions that Bluford lists in his report – which you can read in Cheryl’s account -- I would also suggest that a little empathy goes a long way. If you are a hospital executive, not everyone on staff will have the same ability to embrace wellness.

John Commins is a content specialist and online news editor for HealthLeaders, a Simplify Compliance brand.

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