Implementing innovative workplace practices can increase healthy behaviors

Employers who promote and reward the practice of healthy behaviors by their employees see increased productivity and improvements to their bottom lines.

Employees, as well as visitors to Bronson Hospital in Kalamazoo, Mich. can visit the Winter Farmers Market, located in the hospital’s SkyCourt Café on Fridays from November through April. There, they can buy locally produced eggs, breads from Kalamazoo-area bakeries, jams and jellies made from locally-grown fruits and vegetables that are grown in nearby greenhouses during the winter months.

Wegmans, a supermarket chain based in Gates, N.Y., offers employee wellness programs including blood pressure and nutrition counseling in addition to yoga and Zumba classes held on site. This initiative came directly from Wegmans CEO Danny Wegman, grandson of the chain’s co-founder, who decided he wanted to help the company’s nearly 45,000 workers stay fit and healthy.

When employees and visitors at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, Mich. get the urge to snack, the hospital vending machines identify the healthier snack choices with specially marked logos and display them at eye level. Additionally, nutritional information is prominently displayed next to entrees and ala cart food items served in the hospital’s cafeteria.

Why the sudden interest in encouraging employees to make healthier food choices and increase physical activity? The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that “the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index data for 2011 show full-time workers in the U.S. who are overweight or obese and have other chronic health problems miss about 450 million more days of work each year than healthy workers, resulting in an estimated cost of more than $153 billion in lost productivity annually.”

Furthermore, the CDC reports that “obesity and related chronic diseases cost employers up to $93 billion per year in health insurance claims and that the cost of obesity, including medical expenditures and absenteeism, for a company with 1,000 employees is estimated to be $277,000 per year.”

To reduce these costs and improve employee health and wellness, the CDC recommends these promising employer practices: worksite farmer’s market, nutrition counseling/education, menu labeling, healthy foods in cafeterias and vending and weight management counseling.

The Huffington Post recently reported an example of Wegmans’ success. “Rita Pasono, an IT worker in her 50s, is one of the thousands of Wegmans employees who’s taken advantage of a variety of the company’s programs. When she first decided a few years ago to focus on losing weight to prepare for her son’s wedding, she turned to her employer for help.” After taking advantage of company subsidized visits with a trainer, yoga classes and an on-site Weight Watchers program, she is thriving. She told The Huffington Post, “I’m much healthier. I can’t remember the last time I took a sick day,” Pasono said. “I’m feeling more energetic so it helps me perform my job better.”

Michigan State University Extension promotes farmers markets as a convenient way for people to obtain fresh, local food. If you are interested in establishing a workplace farmers market or any of the other CDC recommended strategies listed above, contact a member of the MSU Extension Community Food Systems team.