Benefits Column

Healthy, Despite Our Employers

With Hawaii as an example, the healthcare picture becomes fuzzier when it comes to employer wellness initiatives. That state's workers are among the healthiest in the nation, but their satisfaction with work is dead last. So, what are some of the lessons that can be learned from the Aloha State?

Monday, December 21, 2009
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I am passionate about your health.

For years, I have asked you, as HR executives, to create work environments where your employees could maintain or improve their physical and mental health. In turn, I promised you the benefits of improved productivity and profitability as well as decreased or stable benefits spend and absence rates.

Here's the truth underneath my passion. I've largely failed.

Yes, we are an incredibly productive nation of workers. We have increased our productivity year over year since 1982. We've linked these gains to almost everything except employee health.

When I was in Hawaii, I was struck that the working population had the worst assessment of their work environment in the United States.

Hawaii-based employees largely say they are dissatisfied with their jobs or the work they do; they do not get to use their strengths every day; their supervisors do not treat them like partners; and their supervisors do not create a trusting and open environment.

Despite being second in the nation on the Gallup Well-Being Index, Hawaii was dead last in work quality. Hawaiians are healthy despite their employers.

We call Hawaiians healthy, based on many factors, including what are described as determinants of health. These four assessment points were first cited in a seminal paper published in 1993 by The Journal of the American Medical Association by McGinnis and Foege, and followed by a second article appearing in Health Affairs in 2002.

The most important determinant of health is an individual's lifestyle behaviors. Access to healthcare accounts for only 10 percent of health status.

Hawaiians hit a grand slam when it comes to behavior.

In order to minimize healthcare costs, there are four ideal behaviors we want to see from all of us:

* Your weight is in the normal range.

* You exercise at least five days per week for at least 30 minutes.

* You eat at least five (and preferably, nine) fruits and vegetables a day.

* You do not smoke.

How do Hawaiians stack up?

According to the recently released America's Health Rankings, Hawaiians are about one-third slimmer than the nation's average; more than 80 percent are physically active; they rank third in the nation in fruit and vegetable consumption; and only 15 percent of Hawaiians smoke.

Not surprisingly, Hawaiians enjoy the lowest percentage of disabled citizens of working age at 7.4 percent of the population.

If employers aren't the driving force behind Hawaiians' healthy behaviors, what is?

Maybe it involves the Hawaiians' sense of 'ohana, or extended family. 'Ohana often goes beyond blood relations to include adoptive and intentional members.

Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler are social scientists who've been using the Framingham Heart Study data to examine social relationships and their impact on obesity, smoking, happiness and loneliness. They've published four scholarly articles in addition to a book released this fall called Connected.

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It turns out that friends, friends of friends, and even friends of friends of friends influence an individual's behaviors and feelings.

The influence of our social circles affects our smoking and obesity rates no matter the distance, but our sense of happiness and loneliness is tied to geographic closeness -- often as close as one-half mile. At the same time, while community-based friendships positively influence our happiness levels, workplace-based friendships have no impact.

The isolation of the Hawaiian Islands intensifies the positive health attributes shared by its inhabitants and their 'ohana.

So, as HR executives, what can we take away from the circumstances in Hawaii? One lesson may involve considering how your company's initiatives involve the community and drive employees' sense of pride in their employer.

Chiumento's Happiness at Work Index indicates that the beliefs that we're doing something worthwhile and that what we do makes a difference are factors that make us happy at work. If, as an employer, we support health initiatives that are community-based, we may positively influence, not only our employees' health, but also their happiness with work quality and the work environment.

This is one main opportunity that employers can take away from Hawaii and its employees' nation-leading health status. Imagine the impact that happiness with work quality could have on the negative trends Hawaii is now experiencing with healthcare costs.

I am still passionate about your health, and will work to include you in my 'ohana. I hope I may experience the same from you.

Carol Harnett is a highly respected consultant, speaker, writer and trendspotter in the fields of employee benefits, health and productivity management, health and performance innovation, and value-based health. Follow her on Twitter via @carolharnett.

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