Ever-increasing healthcare costs are a shock wave for corporations, Deborah McKeever, president and COO of EHE International told attendees at EHS Today America’s Safest Companies Conference on Sept. 11, but the tsunami is on its way.
McKeever estimated the indirect cost of chronic disease – loss of productivity, etc . – to business as $1.1 trillion. But that’s not the worst part; that cost will skyrocket to $4.2 trillion by 2023. EHE International is a pioneer in the fields of employee health and lifestyle management and for 100 years has been devoted to the safeguarding of future health through the prevention of disease before it occurs.
“Seventy-five percent of chronic diseases are preventable,” said McKeever. “That means we can do something to manage, prolong the onset of symptoms or prevent them entirely. But more than half of Americans suffer from one or more chronic diseases.”
The escalation of preventable chronic illness in this country and around the world “threatens our very existence,” said McKeever, “and that’s the conversation we really need to have.”
“Without real improvements in health, fit-to-work adults might just become an endangered species, and that’s the tsunami.”
Using diabetes as an example, she said that executives have a choice: figure out how they are going to accommodate a work force suffering from poor eyesight, physical infirmities and other problems related to chronic Type 2 diabetes, or become advocates for healthier lifestyles for themselves and their employees. “These people will not be able to function in society without significant aid,” she said of people suffering from unregulated Type 2 diabetes, “and that’s just one disease.”
What Companies Can Do
McKeever shared what her company did to promote health among its workers. With several months lead time for each initiative, they eliminated smoking in the workplace (in the building, on the grounds and even in the parking lot if the company owned the lot or was paying rent on those spaces); exchanged candy bars and sugared soda for healthier food and drink choices; offered annual physicals as part of the healthcare coverage; and provided gym memberships at very reduced fees.
But there’s more to it than creating policies and trying to force employees to adhere to them, she noted. To encourage employees to make healthier choices, McKeever removed sugared sodas from vending machines and replaced them with healthier choices such as bottled water and some juices. The company subsidizes bottled water in the vending machines so that it only cost a quarter – it costs up to $2 for the same bottle retail – in an effort to encourage employees to make the healthiest choice.
Instead of just eliminating smoking and punishing employees who continue to smoke, McKeever offered smoking cessation programs not only for employees, but for everyone in their households who smoked: spouses, parents, siblings, children and even roommates. “It’s like a drug addict who finishes a 7-day or 30-day or 90-day treatment program. You don’t return them to the same situation and expect them to succeed.”
High fat and calorie snacks were eliminated from vending machines – “And I love peanut butter cups,” McKeever admitted – and replaced with pretzels, nuts and packages of 100-calorie snacks. “You have to give people more choices than a banana,” she admitted.
She also encouraged employers to suggest employees walk on lunch hours, suggesting they map out 1-mile and 2-mile walking routes for employees to make it easy for them to track exercise. Company cafeterias should offer healthy meal choices she said.
The management of one EHE client, which subsidizes three meals a day for employees, told her that the chef cooked with two ingredients, “fat and salt,” and that employees would squawk if they changed anything. “Here’s an idea,” said McKeever, “Subsidize healthy meals for employees, and if they want to eat unhealthy food, they pay the full cost.”
Employers have to walk the talk, she added. She said when she visits clients, she takes the stairs when possible, because she wants them to see her make those types of choices. She said employers wanting to encourage healthy choices need to examine the message they’re sending. For example, do you reward employees for great performance with pizza lunches and donuts for breakfast, while telling them at the same time that you want them to lead healthier lifestyles?
“Tell them, ‘I share your pain. I’m you,’” she suggested. “Tell them that keeping the doors open will be a significant challenge” if healthcare costs continue to escalate due to chronic treatable illnesses, employees are not healthy enough to work and production suffers.