Author: Magdalena Rutkowska, M.D.
Health remains a huge concern for employers. After all, a healthy company is a wealthy company, and employee wellness is equal to a company’s wellness. It’s that simple.
As a result, a growing number of companies create complex wellness programs not only to attract new employees, but also new investors. However, taking care of the most important company resource, the employees, remains a principle objective.
Corporate wellness is a broad term expressed in a variety of activities. Presenting benefits of a healthy lifestyle and encouraging employees to change their habits should form company policy. The goal can be achieved in various ways including vouchers for sport activity, workshops with dietitians, or lectures. The main challenge is to choose wisely, but to do so will take time and money. Still, corporate wellness programs are worth the investment.
In the last few years, healthcare costs have risen, forcing many companies to look for new areas to save. Employers are even more interested in cost-cutting strategies and, because corporate wellness programs aim to reduce medical treatments for employees, a new market has emerged. Implementing wellness programs not only helps cut the cost of healthcare services provided to employees, it may also result in company profits. Regardless of work environment, a well-planned and attractive wellness program will not only reduce absenteeism rates, but also motivate employees, improve productivity, and boost the company’s financial analysis ratios, which are of distinct interest to investors. As research shows, every dollar invested in wellness programs returns another three to a company.
Obviously, a company thinking about implementing a wellness program should look beyond financial figures and, fortunately, most usually do. Corporate wellness programs should be employee-centered, not savings-centered. So, the question begs: what to focus on?
A company thinking about implementing a wellness program should look beyond financial figures and, fortunately, most usually do. Corporate wellness programs should be employeecentered, not savings-centered.
“First of all, such health programs should be designed by a team of specialists, which guarantees that the subject is approached in a complex way,” said Pawel Buszman, M.D., Ph.D., professor of cardiology and co-founder of the American Heart of Poland. “Secondly, an emphasis on cardiovascular disease’s prophylaxis would be my recommendation, and this is not only because of the heart being the center focus of my specialty.”
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading health, social and economic problem today. Approximately one-in-three American adults have high blood pressure. According to the American Medical Association, more than half of preventable heart disease and stroke deaths happen to people age 65 and under. Atherosclerosis is the leading cause of death in the United States. The numbers are alarming.
World Health Organization research has demonstrated that even 80 percent of heart disorders can be avoided when common risk factors are eliminated.
“Cardiovascular disease, commonly known as heart disease or CVD, is in the global top five of non-communicable diseases,” said Buszman, who refers to a 2011 study by the World Economic Forum. “The overall economic impact of non-communicable diseases has been estimated at the level of $47 trillion in the next 20 years. I often mention this figure to disbelievers because it shows the scale of the problem. We have to act now or never. Only last year, we performed more than 30,000 coronary procedures in our departments, and the numbers are growing each year.”
Buszman said ischemic heart disease (and myocardial infarction, commonly referred to as a heart attack), hypertension and stroke as the most serious from both the epidemiologic and social perspectives.
Prophylactic programs are still not sufficiently effective, and taking an action is not only a matter of corporate social responsibility. According to American Heart Association, risk factors for heart disease and stroke are responsible for at least 25 percent of companies’ healthcare costs.
World Health Organization research has demonstrated that even 80 percent of heart disorders can be avoided when common risk factors are eliminated. Even when talking about a single company, this could bring real healthcare costs savings and improve relevant absenteeism rates.
Know Your Enemy: Plan Work and Work Your Plan World Health Organization lists several risk factors for cardiovascular disease. In terms of preventive measures, those which can most directly affect health include:
Low levels of physical activity
Smoking is linked to lung cancer, but can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
“It does not only decrease the level of good cholesterol, it also makes exercising more difficult,” said Buszman.
There is hope. Within a couple of years after quitting, the risk of heart disease is significantly reduced. However, sometimes taking an action is not about quitting, but about avoiding second-hand smoke, which increases the risk of heart disease even by 30 percent. According to American Heart Association, each year about 38,000 deaths are caused by cardiovascular disease related to second-hand smoke.
Healthy eating benefits heart and overall health. We should avoid eating fast-food, but there is more than that. High intake of sugar, saturated fat and salt, as well as a diet with little fruit, vegetables and fish is unhealthy. According to World Heart Federation, low fruit and vegetable intake accounts for 20 percent of cardiovascular disease. Low consumption of fish increases chance of death from all causes including cardiovascular mortality.
“Obesity may be a cause of many chronic diseases, mostly cardiovascular,” said Buszman. “It increases the risk of the development of ischemic heart disease, hypertension, stroke and circulatory failure.”
Apart from being a risk factor itself, obesity also predisposes individuals to diabetes, another risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Low Levels of Physical Activity
Physical activity is considered the most important factor in supporting good health. Insufficient physical activity, meaning less than 150 minutes of moderate activity a week (in five sessions), may lead to the development of cardiovascular disease including an increase in the chance of stroke by 50 percent. Even for a person with existing cardiovascular disease, physical activity means an improved heart.
Small, Healthy Changes
“Work environment is a perfect place for pro-heart actions, and you don’t need to run a big company to implement those,” said Buszman. “I can tell from my experience that employers already recognize health risks as a threat for their employees; however, they often still don’t know how to influence their habits or whether to take any action at all.”
Buszman said his medical center recently added a complex cardiovascular health assessment program that includes laboratory tests, diagnostic imaging and consultations for patients with a family history of heart disease, those who are leading a sedentary lifestyle or working in stressful conditions.
“The majority of our patients undergoing such screenings are individuals, but the interest among our business clients is slowly growing,” he said.
Small, healthy changes are a start. There are many interesting initiatives to take advantage of. Offering a wider choice of heart-healthy food in the cafeteria including nutrientrich snacks, such as apples, vegetable sticks, unsalted nuts, raisins, fresh and frozen fruit, is a good idea. Some companies have imposed a “fat-tax” on chosen meals, or simply removed all junk food.
“Such menu changes are beneficial for both the employees and employers,” said Buszman. “According to the study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in 2013, the food we consume does not only influence our health, but also has a direct effect on our work performance.”
Some companies offer employees short morning yoga sessions; others, such as NYSE Euronext, organize companywide sport competitions.
“Creating a safe, healthy workplace is important,” said Buszman. “Researchers still aren’t sure how stress contributes to cardiovascular disease, but, by affecting our behaviors, it definitely puts our health on risk.”
What else can be done? The American Heart Association suggests walking routes around the office and rewarding employees who follow them. Another good — and inexpensive — idea is to hang up posters promoting the benefits of physical activity or to schedule 5 minute stretch breaks during the day.
Corporate Wellness: Win-Win Solution
Corporate wellness programs affect employee lives by improving health and career. This way, they influence the company as well.
According to American Heart Association, Americans working full-time spend more than 30 percent of their day at work, mostly behind a desk, which makes the workplace a perfect area to initiate employee lifestyle change.
“And, one has to remember, this is a win-win game,” said Buszman. “While employees improve their health, the companies gain workers with higher job performance, and the taxpayers have less annuities to cover. We all profit. This is why we have to act on every possible level. Social campaigns are important, but won’t solve the problem without further support.”
About the Authors
Paweł Buszman, M.D., Ph.D., is a professor in cardiology and co-founder of American Heart of Poland, – the largest network of cardiology, cardiac and vascular surgery medical centers in Poland. He authored more than 100 publications and has more than 1,000 entries in peer-reviewed journals. As a pioneer in cardiology, he introduced several innovative endovascular treatment techniques.
In 1998, he was recognized by the Polish Ministry of Health for his outstanding medical achievements.
Magdalena Rutkowska, M.D., is president and co-owner of Medical Travel Europe, a Polish medical tourism company that has assisted 1,000 international patients. Apart from her medical background, she possesses managerial, marketing and sales experience. Supported by Polish Ministry of Economy, she promotes Polish medical tourism, works with American Heart of Poland and educates healthcare students.
Agnieszka Szczap, a University of Warsaw graduate and translator, has coordinated more than 1,000 foreign patient visits to Poland and is responsible for marketing and sales of medical procedures in foreign markets. She trains Polish medical center staff in concierge coordination and supports American Heart of Poland in medical tourism markets.