2014 NWCDC

A Strategy of Total Health

The opening keynote addressed ways employers can promote total health and reduce spending.
By: | November 20, 2014

Dr. L. Casey Chosewood, senior medical officer and director of the Office for Total Worker Health Coordination and Research at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), opened his morning keynote with the statement, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”

Speaking at the 2014 National Workers’ Compensation and Disability Management Conference & Expo in Las Vegas, Chosewood’s quip drew laughter, but his message is relevant to every size employer in every industry: the intersection of the workplace and personal health matters.

“Health is your currency to do anything in life that you want to do,” he said.

Regardless of where workers health issues originate, they straddle the line between home and work. Whether it’s stress, joint pain, or poor sleep, an employee’s productivity at work will be effected.

Therefore, Chosewood said, it doesn’t make sense to isolate a worker’s health needs on the job from his needs at home or in other areas of life.

Thus, the creation of Total Worker Health: “a strategy integrating occupational safety and health protection with health promotion to prevent worker injury and illness and to advance health and well-being.”

In other words, it advocates taking care of the employee as a whole person in order to reduce risk of injury and illness.

In 1970, there were 14,000 fatal workplace injuries. In 2010, with a workforce twice as large, there were 4,547 fatalities, but still 3.7 million serious injuries. Workplace illness and injuries that year resulted in $128 billion to $155 billion in direct and indirect costs.

The deadliest threats workers face today include obesity stemming from too many calories and too much sitting. Those who sit for 12 hours a day have a mortality risk 40 percent higher over the following two years than those who sit for 9 hours a day.

Smoking, still the leading cause of preventable death, presents another danger.

These threats often increase propensity for chronic conditions like diabetes, joint pain and depression.  Fifty percent of the American population currently has some form of chronic illness, Chosewood said.

In combination with an aging workforce, such conditions are driving up injury risk, lengthening recovery time, and increasing claim costs. One study showed that chronic disease increases acute injury risk by 25 percent.

However, employers can’t expect individuals to change their behavior when the “social, cultural and physical environments around them conspire against them,” he said.

Companies must create cultures and environments that send employees home healthier at the end of the day than when they came in.

The CDC’s Atlanta campus, for example, purposefully built a new parking facility a 15-minute walk away, which provoked some initial grumbling. After the lot was built, though, no new employee ever complained about the walk.

“Be brave enough to take short-term heat,” when changes ultimately benefit the health of your workforce, Chosewood said.

Allowing flexible work arrangements is another way organizations can help employees improve health by managing stress. A survey from 2010 showed that 44 percent of people say work is often or always stressful, while 50 percent say work interferes with their time and duties at home.

Flexible work arrangements have been shown to increase employee retention, job satisfaction, and overall employee health.

With 65 percent of the U.S. adult population on the job, workplaces are effective venues for addressing health and promoting behaviors that could change the landscape of U.S. healthcare.

“Getting health care spending right in this country is an economic necessity,” Chosewood said. “Companies that build a culture of health have a healthier bottom line.”

Katie Dwyer is a freelance editor and writer based out of Philadelphia. She can be reached at [email protected].

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