Lowering risk by raising wellness

When local governments keep city employees physically and emotionally healthy, residents and businesses can reap rewards, too. Luckily, cities have countless tools to improve employee wellness.

Wellness programs can attract and retain employees, make a city an employer of choice, foster creativity, enhance employees' performance and decrease burnout, according to Sara Rauch, director of strategy and planning for the Wellness Council of America.

These benefits go beyond the old thinking, which focused mostly on saving health insurance and workers' compensation costs. To be successful, wellness programs must be tailored for each entity.

The Wellness Council of America developed several essential benchmarks, including the following:

  • Enlist senior-level support.
  • Empower a cohesive team to drive the program.
  • Gather city-specific data on wellness needs.
  • Make a detailed plan.
  • Choose appropriate wellness interventions.
  • Create a supportive environment.
  • Carefully evaluate outcomes.

Common challenges to employee wellness include poor nutrition, fatigue and stress, all of which impact physical and behavioral health, safety and performance.

A better diet
Approximately 127 million American adults are overweight, and 60 million are obese, which is considered to be more than 30 pounds overweight.

The Peapod Biz Bites Survey suggests that about two out of three employees find eating healthy at work a challenge.

"Cities can support healthy eating by substituting any unhealthy snacks or meals provided by the city with healthier alternatives," said Meredith Kaiser, loss control consultant for the Municipal Association's Risk Management Services.

It's also helpful to remind employees that eating more fruits and vegetables and less saturated fat reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke. It also lowers the risk of getting diabetes and certain cancers, such as cancers of the mouth, throat, lung, esophagus, stomach and colon.

Obesity is associated with more than 30 serious medical conditions. So consider offering all employees access to nutritional counseling, not just those with certain health diagnoses. Free online educational newsletters, such as one from the American Heart Association, can also supplement onsite resources.

When fatigue affects safety
Forty-three percent of U.S. workers believe they are too tired to function safely at work, according to a new National Safety Council report, Fatigue in the Workplace: Causes and Consequences of Employee Fatigue, which focused on 2,000 working adults.

The study also found that 97 percent of workers have at least one risk factor for fatigue, such as working late-night or early-morning shift, working long shifts without regular breaks, working more than 50 hours each week, and having long commutes. The NSC revealed that 76 percent of respondents reported feeling tired at work, 53 percent say they are less productive and 44 percent have trouble focusing.

"Impairment stems not just from alcohol and drugs but lack of restorative rest," said NSC President and CEO Deborah A.P. Hersman. "Fitness for duty starts with getting a good night's sleep."

According to the report, workplace fatigue can be caused by a variety of factors, including work schedules and job demands. NSC says employers must understand the underlying causes of fatigue in order to identify potential sources of safety risks and ultimately implement appropriate countermeasures.

The document points to three levels of fatigue: decreased cognitive performance, microsleeps or nodding off, and increased risk for workplace injuries. The NSC cites one study that found a person who loses two hours of sleep from a normal eight-hour sleep schedule performs similar to someone who has consumed two to three beers.

Gordon Graham, a law enforcement risk management expert, said that even low-risk tasks can become dangerous when employees are fatigued, complacent or distracted.

Long-term sleep deprivation can lead to other complications, including the following:

  • high blood pressure,
  • increased risk of heart disease and diabetes,
  • depression,
  • substance abuse, and
  • obesity.

An estimated 50 million to 70 million Americans struggle to fall asleep or stay asleep, according to the National Institutes of Health. A National Sleep Foundation poll found that American adults sleep less than the recommended seven hours each night, and more than half had symptoms of insomnia at least two nights each week.

Being mindful of work schedules and job demands can support an employee's quality of sleep, safety and health.

The effects of stress
Workplace Options, a provider of Employee Assistance Program services, examined data representing more than 100,000 employees' EAP inquiries from 2012 to 2014. While the number of cases dealing with personal emotional health issues remained relatively constant over the period, those related to stress, anxiety, and depression showed an "alarming" increase.

About four out of every 10 cases were related to personal emotional health issues. The number of cases around depression increased 58 percent between 2012 and 2014. Anxiety cases were up 74 percent and cases of employee stress increased 28 percent.

"If your employees' emotional well-being wasn't already on the top of your list of priorities, it needs to be," said Dean Debnam, CEO of Workplace Options.

Aetna surveyed its employees and found that those who reported the highest levels of stress incurred on average $2,000 more per year in health care costs.

Cities cannot eliminate the causes of stress in employees' personal lives. But it is important to try to reduce causes of work-related stress, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

There are some concrete steps that may help to achieve this. Group discussions or employee surveys can help identify sources of stress and possible solutions. Employee Assistance Program providers can be a resource for individual counseling as well as classroom training on topics such as stress-management and conflict resolution. First responders also have a behavioral health benefit established to reimburse them for out-of-pocket costs related to mental health care.

A variety of studies have suggested that mindfulness techniques are an effective way to manage stress. Employees can download an app like Headspace for tips.

For more information, SCMIT and SCMIRF members may contact Meredith Kaiser at 803.933.1279 or  

Portions of this article are reprinted with permission from Safety National.