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Does helping employees become healthier yield a more productive workforce?

Flu season can be hard on a business owner or manager. You’ve got to plan for lost workers, to overcome decreased productivity and to manage the associated ripple effects.

Or do you?

Tom Carter, a vice president in the Strategic Customer Engagement group at Kaiser Permanente, worked with one large retailer as it grappled with its flu season strategy. The company’s traditional approach was to hire enough seasonal workers to keep itself fully staffed no matter how many fell ill.

But there came a point where that strategy no longer worked. The retailer began focusing on keeping its existing team healthy instead. While it didn’t eradicate flu from its employees, the new health-centric strategy helped lower the number of extra workers the company had to hire — saving time and money, Carter said.

“Almost 10 percent of payroll now is attributed to illness-related absences. In most cases, that’s more than workers’ comp insurance,” Carter said. “But I’ve seen businesses cut that number in half by helping their people get more on top of their health.”

In his work at Kaiser Permanente, a national health care provider and not-for-profit health plan, Carter is seeing a massive shift across employers of all sizes focused around health and wellbeing. “Everyone realizes an unsafe work environment is not good for business. Now they’re finding out that an unhealthy workforce can impact business performance in significant ways,” he said.

They’re also finding that reaping the rewards of a healthier workforce isn’t as easy as creating a new wellness program, Carter said. “Corporate culture drives employee well-being and business performance. Organizations focused on overall employee well-being are the ones that have an engaged workforce thus delivering improved business value.”

For example, Carter recalled one employer who conducted a survey of its employees to determine what issues affected them the most. The answer was student loan debt – the organization’s employees were carrying, on average, $100,000 in student loans. That isn’t what typically comes to mind when you think about wellness, Carter said, but the debt was causing extreme stress, which can impact overall health and well-being.

The only reason the organization knew about it was because it took the time to ask.

“An old rule of thumb is, if you’re not spending 50 percent of your time on employee communication, you’re spending too much time designing programs that people won’t attend,” Carter said.

There can be some costs to implementing and supporting a culture of well-being, but Carter said he advises companies to see it as an investment — with a return you can measure.

“Look at how you measure business performance today, and how much of that is reliant on your people. Start benchmarking those measures as you invest on improving your culture, and you should see those numbers improve over time.

“Is the average BMI of the group going to move in a year? No. Is everyone’s blood pressure going to drop? Maybe not. But can you make sure everyone’s getting their preventive care screenings? Yes,” Carter said.

Some of the metrics should already be measured by businesses, such as employee retention, employee satisfaction and workplace injury rates. It’s just a matter of paying attention to the right metrics that drive employee health and safety, Carter said.  Employee surveys can help provide deeper insight into what employees need help with, and your health care provider may be able to help with additional data identifying health risks.

“I don’t think employers have been aware enough to ask for different information from their health care partners,” Carter said. “The reality is, health is more than a benefit strategy, it is a business strategy, and they should be asking more from their health care partner in supporting them to achieve their desired business outcomes.”

Get started creating a culture of health and wellbeing. Learn how to talk with your employees and gain buy-in for workforce health efforts. Kaiser Permanente is there to support you on your health and wellbeing journey.

Kaiser Permanente is the nation’s leading not-for-profit health plan, serving more than 12 million members.


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