Edington: 20th-century workplace health strategy didn’t work

U.S. companies need to approach workforce health as a business strategy rather than a cost center, according to Dee W. Edington, University of Michigan professor and author of Zero Trends: Health as a Serious Economic Strategy.

Edington spoke at the 7th Annual Value-Based Benefits & Wellness Forum and Vendor Fair Dec. 1 at the Westin Galleria in Dallas.

He said the 20th-century workplace health strategy – wait for disease and then treat it – did not work. He likened it to the manufacturing process: “Wait for defects and then fix them.” He pointed out diabetes and obesity has continued to rise unabated despite wellness efforts.

“Medicine can only fix the defects. We must fix the fundamental problem. We must fix the systems that lead to the defects,” Edington said.

He said businesses cannot be successful without a healthy and high-performing workforce, and need to view health costs as an investment. The problem, he noted, is that companies say people are their most important assets and then do not invest in their health.

Edington is director of the University of Michigan’s Health Management Research Center, which has tracked the health of more than two million employees for up to 17 years. The center’s work has influenced the health promotion and wellness programs of more than 1,000 corporate worksites.

According to the center’s data, 64 percent of employees are low risk (0-2 health risk factors); 25 percent are medium risk (3-4 risk factors), and 11 percent are high risk (5 or more risk factors). Risk factors include being overweight, physically inactive, hypertension, smoking, heavy drinking, high stress, chronic conditions and self-reported poor health.

Edington said a company should have a workforce of 75 percent in the low-risk category – and ensure 75 percent of those stay low risk year-to-year – to make a significant impact on health costs. It also should have 95 percent participation in annual health-risk assessments.

Edington pointed out a company’s change in health costs follows the change in the risk factors of its workforce because an employee’s health gets worse every day. The only ways to lower costs are for employees to get younger, he said facetiously, or reduce employee health risks.

Edington said the natural flow of an employee’s health status is to high risk. As a result, the natural flow of company health costs is to higher costs. Both increase with an employee’s age. Once an employee acquires diabetes or heart disease, for example, he or she will never be low-cost again.

Edington identified five pillars for a 21-century workplace health strategy:

(1) Senior company leaders who commit to creating a healthy workplace culture and connect that vision to the company’s strategy.

(2) Operations leaders who create policies to align the workplace with the senior leadership’s vision, brand the health-management strategy and engage employees.

(3) Encouragement of employee self-leadership. Wellness efforts help employees to avoid acquiring risk factors.

(4) Constant reinforcement of the health workplace culture by rewarding champions and setting incentives for healthy choices.

(5) Allowing outcomes to drive strategy by measuring results and making the wellness program sustainable.