Are Those Responsible for Employee Health Appropriately Trained to Make the Right Decisions?

The cost of health insurance in the U.S. is clearly a concern for employers. In 2010, American employers spent a total of $560.9 billion for group health insurance, an increase of approximately 67 percent over the past 10 years. For the third consecutive year, nearly 60 percent of chief financial officers cited health care costs as their main financial concern for their companies, above revenue growth, cash flow and corporate tax rates. Business leaders are aware of the significant contribution of chronic disease, also known as non-communicable diseases (NCDs) (including mental illnesses) to this cost, with half of all business leaders worrying that at least one NCD will hurt their company's bottom line in the next five years.

There is strong evidence that effective workplace health promotion and disease prevention aimed at tackling the NCD burden has compelling benefits to businesses, including:

Despite this, employers continually underinvest in prevention, allocating less than two percent of their total health care expenditures to this vital issue. One of the key causes of this is limited leadership within businesses for health promotion and disease prevention.

Visible and sustained senior leadership commitment to prevention is critical to its success. Most organizations that have won the annual C. Everett Koop National Health Awards have been led by CEOs who have taken a strong public as well as intra-company stand on the value of health and the importance of prevention. These include L.L. Bean Inc. Chairman Leon Gorman, Eastman Chemical Chairman and CEO Jim Rogers, and Prudential Financial Chairman and CEO John Strangfeld. Despite these exemplars, the cadre remains small. The Towers Watson Global Workforce Survey revealed that less than 50 percent of employees think that the senior leadership in their organizations have a sincere interest in employee well-being.

Operational responsibility both for the delivering of health promotion and disease prevention programs, and articulating the case for prevention to the senior leadership often lies in the hands of the chief medical officer, an individual responsible for human resources, or sometimes the corporate social responsibility team. Most of these leaders receive varying levels of training on occupational safety and environmental health (OSH), but few have received the necessary training to champion, design, implement and evaluate prevention programs to reduce major NCD risks such as tobacco use, unhealthy diets, lack of physical activity, and excessive alcohol consumption. Although a few courses have been developed for workplace prevention practitioners, their use is not widespread.

Improved training of professionals to build senior leadership support and implement effective programs within organizations is critical for the workplace to become a major site for addressing the ever increasing burden of NCDs not just to U.S. businesses but to the U.S. as a whole.

To enhance the impact on employee and community health, the Vitality Institute is invested in training current and future leaders in health prevention science through the following two initiatives:

  1. A 10-module complimentary webinar series for HR and benefit professionals from small, medium and large businesses, which launched this Wednesday September 10, 2014, and
  2. a collaboration with the Young Professionals Chronic Disease Network (YP-CDN), Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, and the Peter C. Alderman Foundation on training and mentoring future leaders in prevention science.

Paul Drucker and Lincoln are both credited for saying that "the best way to predict the future is to create it." The Institute aim is to build a culture of health, aligning its efforts with the vision of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

We call on workplace health and human resources professionals at all company levels to join us for this enlightening webinar series and to contribute to the conversations and actions on building healthy and vibrant workplaces nationwide.

Follow the Vitality Institute on Twitter, at @VitalityInst.