Workplace health efforts urged

Investments pay off for workers and companies, educator Michael Perko said Tuesday.


WALLA WALLA -- The message to employers was clear: Invest in employee wellness or pay the consequences.

And in any number of ways: Early death, employee absenteeism, higher insurance premiums and lower morale at work.

On Tuesday more than 30 employment, health and other professionals gathered at Reid Campus Center at Whitman College to hear the why's, numbers and challenges of implementing work site wellness programs. In a phone presentation by Michael Perko of the University of North Carolina, they also heard what's likely to happen if they don't promote health in the office.

In a presentation by Perko, Walla Walla County Health Department and Blue Mountain Chapter of Human Resource Management Association, statistics looked grim:

In a graph of obesity trends over a 20-year period, the Northwest region has joined many other areas of the country with a 25-29 percent rate of adults who need to lose weight.

A century ago, 80 percent of the workforce did manual labor. Today 99 percent of us sit the entire work period.

The majority of us leave work and go home and "turn something on," such as TV and Facebook, experts say.

Forty percent of us get no exercise at all.

According to the American Journal of Epidemiology, sitting three to six hours increased risk of early death (counted as seven years before statistics indicate we'll die) in women by 37 percent and in men by 18 percent.

In non-exercisers, those numbers jump to 94 percent in women, 50 percent in men.

As soon as we sit down, the electrical activity in leg muscles shuts off, calorie burning drops to one calorie per minute and activity by the enzymes that help break down fat drops by 90 percent.

After two hours of solid sitting, our "good" cholesterol number drops by 20 percent, and after 24 hours from that sitting period, our insulin's effectiveness to manage our blood sugar drops 24 percent and the risk of diabetes rises.

Such employees become sitting ducks for cardiovascular disease, experiencing twice the rate of those who stand at work.

The good news is that the top 10 employers in Walla Walla have a total of 9,000 employees who can benefit from workplace wellness, noted Ben Paly, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention public health associate working at the Walla Walla County Health Department. But of companies that haven't yet implemented such programs, "they're 20 years behind," Perko said.

The associate professor of public health education has spent decades preaching the message of workplace wellness, a term he's not entirely comfortable with, he told the group.

It's a "warm fuzzy" slogan from the 1950s that people think of in what they are doing as individuals, Perko said. "That's 'health.' I like 'work site health promotion' ... we struggle with coming up with a better term because 'wellness' is so branded."

There is no doubt that America is expanding its collective bottom, especially in the workplace, the educator said. That said, "obesity is the product of the problem, it's not the problem."

Physical inactivity is the biggest public health problem in this county, aided by a an ever-available food supply and work-related stress, he said.

For employers, the unhappy results of all that cashes in with money lost through employee turnover, sick pay and "presenteeism" -- where workers don't feel like coming in but have to, Perko explained. "Then they're on the computer researching their aches and pains while at work."

Not to mention the depression and incidents of mental illness that come from inactivity. "Those effect everything we do, even as those are highly under reported," he said.

As Perko sees it, companies have four choices:

Do nothing -- This is a "huge mistake," the professor said. Employees who are not managing their health are beset by the insidious diseases such as diabetes, which robs staff of energy and ability to fight illness.

Reduce health benefits -- Employers can't afford the cost so they take some away, Perko said. That's a no-no. "The benefit package is part of the wellness strategy. There are about 1,000 studies that show wellness programs will pay for themselves in two years.

Pass on increased costs to employees -- In North Carolina and elsewhere, companies are telling employees who have higher health risks -- a body mass index of 40 or higher, and a smoking habit -- that they are not eligible for premium health plans because of those factors, he pointed. "You can only get the basic. That's an economic strategy. These are CEO's deciding they cannot afford it. The only way to make that argument work, though, is if the company provides a way for people to help themselves."

Actively support and encourage managing health -- This is the right answer, he said. "Here is the beauty of it -- we are not asking CEO's to run marathons or lose 50 pounds. We are asking CEO's to be the face of wellness for their companies."

That means the top executive putting a statement about workplace health in the company handbook, right on the first page. It means not just giving a nod to some employee-generated idea, but attending the ribbon-cutting and going to the meetings, the professor said. "They are saying 'We are all in this.'"

Companies taking confidential health surveys will find employees broken into three populations, Perko told his audience.

High-risk folks will have four or more health risks; about 10 to 15 percent of the company will fit into this slot.

Moderate risk employees will have two to three risks -- between 65 and 75 percent of employees will be here on the scale. That's the population that is likely to reach for wellness help when a health event occurs, he pointed out.

Then there is the low-risk group, only there because they have not aged into health issues. "About 15 to 20 percent of your employees are here. But they'll be your future high-risk people in 25 years because they are still going out and drinking, still going out to parties."

With CEO-led health management, proactive companies stand to save the lives of their high-risk employees; save $153 each year for moderate-risk people and $350 annually for the low-riskers when risks are reduced or delayed.

On average, companies must put $100 a year into each employee to maximize results, he said. "You must invest in prevention." Companies can lead by example, finding ways to engage their crews in giving back to the community. "That's a wellness program."

And administrations must focus on "functional" health. It's not a matter of making marathon athletes, but in getting people through the day without sore knees. It's not about the "old-old, but the young-old," Perko said.

The goal is for those people to not need a seven-day pill planner we they retire. "They should be able to scoop up a grandchild or reach into the pantry for a can of green beans. That's functional health ... we're building industrial athletes."

Investing in prevention is the No. 1 answer for most companies, Perko said. "We have to put money into this. When you look at strategies used at the federal level and by CEOs who present this information to their fellow CEOs, what they are saying is, 'We want to retain employees.' These people then become invested in the companies and the CEOs who get it return the favor."

Even in the nation's economic climate, the cost-cutting argument is strong, Perko said today. "People with arthritis, people who are obese and have problems with joints, people with addictive behaviors ... Your employee who smokes is going to cost, on average, $3,000 more per year than the employee that does not."

And it's not always the obvious risk factors that ring up the ka-ching for health insurance plans. Once people begin to leave their 30s, health issues begin cropping up. Even with successful treatment, "we never really return to that original state of health."

Arthritis, high blood pressure, metabolic syndromes can go undiagnosed for years. But when those hit, they hurt a company's bottom line, he said. "We're in our 50s, looking at three or four conditions and on three medications a day. And that has to be managed. And all of a sudden, you have noncompliance, then the employee has a stroke or heart attack and you're still paying for them."

It means money now for prevention and delaying those health problems or money later to underwrite sick, less productive staff, he said.

"We're not making this up. This comes form health economists who care about return on investment. And from they're analysis, it looks like preventing disease is a pretty damn good thing."

Sheila Hagar can be reached at or 526-8322.

Learn More

For more information about workplace wellness, go to:

Another presentation by Walla Walla County Health Department and Blue Mountain Chapter of Human Resource Management Association will be April 4, noon to 1 p.m., at health department, 314 W. Main St., Rose Street entrance, on the second floor. The event is open to Walla Walla Valley employers and will focus on what companies of all sizes can do to implement employee wellness programs.

For more information contact Ben Paly at 524-2665 or


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