Various medical journals in the U.S. and abroad have estimated that health-policy changes, on average, don’t crystallize until roughly 17 years after they’ve first been suggested by evidence-based research. Some, in fact, can take a lot longer: The U.S. surgeon general bluntly outlined the health risks of smoking back in 1964, but it took nearly 30 years before many major corporations banned it at workers’ desks, and even longer before banning it altogether.
Now, just two years after a National Institutes of Health report determined that prolonged sitting was as great a health risk as smoking, business isn’t dragging its feet. More companies’ HR departments, particularly at larger organizations with more resources, are actively attacking the practices that lead to lengthy stretches at a desk or terminal. Corporate wellness professionals are seeking new strategies to change the mind sets of workers and the programming in company-paid health and fitness initiatives. Mobile technologies are allowing employees to monitor and address inactivity or manage treatments for chronic illness. And innovative approaches to work-station design are producing contraptions that look like something out of The Jetsons.
We’re not to the point where office productivity is geared to a pedal-powered work station—yet—but it’s clear that business executives are taking quick action to address the human-capital risks involved.
“We’ve understood, obviously within our population with call centers and at corporate, that we all sit and need to promote physical activity as much as we can,” said Mike Finch, benefits program manager for employee health and productivity at Sprint. That’s a big challenge at a work force with roughly 7,000 people at the Overland Park campus and 38,000 worldwide.
For Sprint, that emphasis on getting employees moving as part of their work day is embedded employee-wellness strategy that includes group walks, accessibility to walking trails on corporate property, or involvement in the company’s Sit and Get Fit Challenge. But that broader, comprehensive approach to wellness includes efforts to publicize company initiatives and success stories and a holistic approach that also addresses mental, financial and even social health. “We think it’s important to bring all of these pieces together, rather than focus on any one area like weight management or exercise by itself,” Finch said.
Few companies, by comparison, have the financial resources of a $35 billion company like Sprint, but more are engaging in wellness programs—and finding ways to realize long-term health improvements in their staffs.
Keith Jantz, director of Kansas City Internal Medicine’s corporate wellness division, says his programs are now reaching as many as 4,000 employees a year, with a strong focus on preventive medicine. “That’s where my focus is now with corporate clients, talking about how they can stay healthy,” he said. As part of that equation, “Activity and exercise definitely are some of the things we emphasize.”
One issue facing employers, he notes, is that they have employees’ attention for the workday, but even a 50-hour work week leaves 118 other hours a week for dietary mischief or inactivity. That time frame holds the key to long-term health improvements, Jantz said. “The bigger focus is what people do outside the workplace, and not become couch potatoes” he said.
That’s where the disconnect comes into play between the best intentions of a company’s wellness programs and choices that people make outside of work.
“Through the years, patients tell me they work hard all day, they’re tired when they get home and don’t feel like exercising,” Jantz said. “If we can convince them to do something when they get home, by the time they’re finished, they find they have more energy than when they started.” There’s a reason for that: “Their fatigue is generally mental,” Jantz said. “If they have a desk job, something that’s not physical labor, the fatigue is not physical. Exercise is a form of relaxation, it lowers stress in the body, and that’s how people can get more energy.”
Can workplace activities bridge that disconnect?
Greg Justice, owner of AYC Health & Fitness, is seeing some of that, and not just with the companies he counsels on employee health initiatives. “Even what we do in my office, we have a timer that dings every 15 minutes,” he said. “You don’t have to walk around the entire building, but if you’re sitting for two hours at a time, it’s a good idea to get up for two minutes and walk around, and if not, at least standing up occasionally.”
New research, he said, is prompting re-evaluation of health programs.
“We used to think that 30 to 60 minutes of exercise a day would combat the effects of prolonged sitting, but that’s no longer the case,” Justice said. But by implementing a series of little things—encouraging people to stand for a minute each hour, walk to the water cooler every two hours, use oversize exercise balls instead of office chairs—“simple little steps like that, the little tactical things,” Justice said, “can make a big difference over the course of a day.”
Coming from a technology background working for Cerner Corp., Darryl Olive of KCFitnessLink cites the benefits of tying new tech tools into wellness programs.
“Technology is huge,” he said. “Some examples of its impact are with social media, not only socially among peers, but among employees and programs to stimulate engagement.” Employers can enhance the effectiveness of weight-loss or smoking cessation programs, he said, by allowing participants to connect, share information and success tips, and offer peer encouragement. Tools like mobile apps for a smartphone, wearable technologies like step counters and calorie counters can help provide additional motivation.
Gregg Laiben, who oversees corporate wellness programming for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City, said those efforts, launched in 2005, now have enough history to demonstrate effective tactics, and to identify opportunities for innovation.
“Wellness, like the rest of our world, is changing. We’re starting to see that, particularly with sit-stand,” Laiben said. “We’re seeing some clients, typically law firms, with principals and attorneys using standing desks because they are sitting so much of the time. The data is pretty robust.”
That data initially was coming from commercial furniture makers, he said, but with NIH, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and independent university researchers, there’s a new body of evidence about the importance of maintaining activity throughout the day.
“There is a considerable amount of data on activity and how it impacts the musculoskeletal system, tension, the back, and metabolic and glucose changes in sedentary people,” Laiben said. “If you get up, stand and walk a little bit, that can impact that.”
New data showing that the exercise benefits from 30 minutes of daily activity can actually be lost to those who sit for most of an eight-hour shift, he said. “So the whole goal is to change your position at work. It’s kind of like 25 years ago, when we recognized the danger of repetitive-stress injury with prolonged keyboarding. People were taught to stretch their arms and hands every 20 minutes, and we may start to see some of that in terms of sitting, too.”
The bigger picture, Jantz said, was that a huge portion of America’s health-care crisis could be addressed by efforts to weave activities more seamlessly into the workday and after-hours.
“The statistic I frequently quote is that if you walk for 30 minutes every day, non-stop and at a brisk pace, you lower your risk for heart attack and cardiovascular disease by 20 percent,” he said. “That’s amazing because as a physician, there’s no pill I can give that does that. Here something you can do that doesn’t cost a dime, has no side effects, no pills to take, and lowers your risk by 20 percent.”