By Jeffrey R. Harris, MD, MPH, MBA, Professor and Chair, Department of Health Services, School of Public Health, University of Washington
Keeping employees healthy is paramount to the success of any employer, be they a private business, a government agency, or a non-profit. On November 7th of this year, the Tri-Cities Cancer Center launched a workplace wellness program called Cancer Crushing Executives to assist employers in the Mid-Columbia region to keep their employees healthy. I had the pleasure of serving as the keynote speaker for the launch of Cancer Crushing Executives. As a follow-on to those remarks, I lay out briefly here why employers should promote employee health through workplace wellness programs, how to implement the programs, and the design of Cancer Crushing Executives.
Promoting employee health
Promoting employee health via workplace wellness programs can prevent cancer and other diseases, as well as detect them early, when they are most treatable. When well implemented, these programs work—they aid in decreasing smoking, increasing physical activity, and assisting with weight control. They also increase: employee morale and team-building; recognition of concern for employee well-being; and recruitment and retention. And they save money. A scientific review of 22 studies showed a six-fold return on investment overall. Half of this came from healthcare savings, and the other half came from productivity gains.
Chronic diseases are far and away the most common cause of illness, disability, and death in Washington State and the United States. Among working-age adults in WA, cancer is the most common of the chronic diseases. Cancer among employees is heart-breaking but also costly to employers as employees with acute episodes of cancer are often absent from work and have the need to utilize disability benefits and worker’s compensation.
Implementing workplace wellness programs
As hinted at above, the best workplace wellness programs focus on helping employees adopt or maintain healthy behaviors. These behaviors include quitting tobacco use, being active, eating healthy, and getting the appropriate early-detection screenings for cancer. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and its Guide to Community Preventive Services offer employers a short list of evidence-based practices to help employees with these behaviors.
Even though evidence-based practices (EBP) in the workplace can increase levels of healthy eating, cancer screening, physical activity, and tobacco cessation, employee participation can be low, even in large workplaces. Three proven strategies work to increase participation: 1) providing access and making healthy behaviors easy (for example, by serving healthy foods in vending machines and cafeterias), 2) motivating employees by making healthy behaviors part of the workplace culture (for example, by organizing group-exercise opportunities at work), and 3) providing employees with the skills to succeed in adopting and monitoring healthy behaviors (for example, through reminders about cancer screening). A recent review by the Rand Corporation also identified five effective tactics to undergird these strategies: 1) maximize what many workplaces already have (e.g. their health plan and its health promotion resources); 2) lead at all levels, starting with the CEO or most senior leader, but also through training and empowering front-line supervisors; 3) communicate, communicate, communicate; 4) engage employees and provide convenience and easy access; and 5) evaluate continuously.
Cancer Crushing Executives
The Tri-Cities Cancer Center’s Cancer Crushing Executives program is a promising approach to chronic disease prevention via the workplace. It brings together the Mid-Columbia’s leader in cancer prevention, early detection, world-class treatment, and survivorship with the region’s largest employers to promote evidence-based practices targeted at the most common causes of disease and death. The most senior leaders from the region’s largest employers have committed to being Cancer Crushing Executives, with a commitment to improve wellness within their workplaces. These organizations represent roughly 30,000 employees. When positively impacted families are included, Cancer Crushing Executives can directly impact 100,000 lives right here in your community. This program is more than workplace wellness. This is community health, which is so desperately needed in the United States and Eastern Washington.
The Cancer Crushing Executives is a unique intervention in that assessment measures are a key part of the intervention and are reported to participants. Additionally, health and wellness information will be frequently communicated to all employees at participating organizations. Creative and unique content will be created to address the most prevalent concerns, from the cancer lens, that the Mid-Columbia region faces. And the same behaviors, practices, strategies, and tactics that help prevent cancer can also help prevent several other major killers—diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.
Your Tri-Cities Cancer Center, in partnership with key leaders and businesses in your region, are taking a significant step in the prevention of several diseases that are impacting our communities in significant numbers. To disseminate health-promoting EBPs to large workplaces, the Tri-Cities Cancer Center will be working with my organization, the University of Washington, along with the Washington State Department of Health. It was exciting to see so many business leaders in your community make the commitment to improving workplace wellness. These leaders are in it for the long haul. Employees, their families, your community, and local businesses are the beneficiaries.
Pictured from left to right, back row: Chuck DeGooyer, CEO, Tri-Cities Cancer Center; Don Miller, President & CEO, Gesa Credit Union; Cindy Reents, City Manager, City of Richland; Craig Cudworth, CEO, Trios Health; Dave Bond, Superintendent, Kennewick School District; Craig Marks, CEO, PMH Medical Center; Bob Wilkinson, President, Mission Support Alliance; Mark Reddemann, CEO, Energy Northwest; Chad Bartram, General Manager, Benton PUD; Jeff Harris, Professor and Chair, Department of Health Services, University of Washington; Phil Gallagher, President, Tri-Cities Cancer Center Foundation.
Pictured from left to right, front row: John Serle, President & CEO, Lourdes Health; Dr. Rick Shulte, Superintendent, Richland School District; Lane Savitch, Chief Operating Officer, Kadlec Regional Medical Center; Dolores Broeske, SVP/Chief of Staff, HAPO Community Credit Union; Tim Nies, General Manager, Franklin PUD; Marie Mosley, City Manager, City of Kennewick.
Not pictured: Dr. Steven Ashby, Laboratory Director, Battelle; Shirley Simmons, Owner, CG Public House and Catering; Ty Blackford, President & CEO, CH2M; Dave Zabell, City Manager, City of Pasco; Dennis Burke, President & CEO, Good Shepherd Health Care System; Steve Anderson, President & CEO, HAPO Community Credit Union; Michelle Whitney, Superintendent, Pasco School District; Mark Lindholm, President, WRPS; Dr. Keith Moo-Young, Chancellor, WSU Tri-Cities.
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5. Guide to community preventive services. Atlanta (GA): Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2015. www.thecommunityguide.org. Accessed April 7, 2015.