Encouraging Employees to Achieve Healthy Eating and Fitness Goals in the Workplace

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5 September 2023

Encouraging Employees to Achieve Healthy Eating and Fitness Goals in the Workplace

Healthy eating and fitness is a growing trend in our society. Every day, a new diet regimen is created. Low carb, no carb, high protein, gluten free, grain free, paleo, vegan, plant-based, and more. It is safe to say that eating healthy is quickly becoming the hot new thing. Even fitness workouts are becoming popular. The days of working out at the gym lifting weights or running endlessly are gone. There are now fitness regimens that incorporate more than just aerobic fitness and include things like yoga, calisthenics, boxing, martial arts, and other sport activities.

However, with all this talk about fitness and eating healthy, transferring that lifestyle into our everyday workweek can be a challenge when many jobs are sedentary. It is hard to keep a healthy routine if your only go-to snack at work is a soda and candy vending machine and your exercise is limited to your quick walks to the bathroom. With an increased focus on having productive employees who work, work, work, an employer can lose sight of the employees' well-being in the process and potentially miss the real cost of decreased healthy habits. It is also important to remember that exercise and diet are not the only factors in a healthy lifestyle.

Types of Employees

Most employees at a workplace tend to fall into three categories. You will have the employees who make a commitment to staying healthy and have already incorporated tips and tricks into their everyday activities to help achieve their wellness goals with minimal disruption to the job function.

Then you have the employees who are unhealthy through personal choices. These employees have little ambition to obtain a healthy lifestyle. They are quite comfortable with their current state and have no desire to change their habits. They may be snacking continuously throughout the day on vending machine candy and chips. Their mobility is usually limited to bathroom and cigarette breaks. They frequently take days off with increased absenteeism because of health issues.

Finally, you have the employees that want to start their journey to wellness but may be struggling with how to begin or staying on their plan. These individuals often experience a trigger event that jump starts their need for wellness, such as receiving a troubling medical evaluation, or a poor result on a maximal exercise test when seeking to change jobs within the company to one that required functional capacity testing, or even having a death in the family. (Learn more in How to Set Up a Fit-for-Work Testing Program).

Cost of Unhealthy Employees

No matter what stage of health your employees are at, having an unhealthy employee can increase the cost of injuries and worker's compensation claims. Typically, a healthier employee will quickly recover from injuries faster than an employee who was already unhealthy. In addition, these employees are less likely to experience high-cost injuries such as strains and sprains because their bodies are generally at a higher level of fitness to begin with.

In a 2011 Gallup Poll, an obese employee will, on average, take 1.65 sick days from work each month. The survey further concludes that an unhealthy obese employees costs, on average, $37 billion every year in lost productivity due to absenteeism. In addition, a survey conducted in February 2016 indicates that obesity rates are only on the rise, increasing from 26.1% in 2011 to 28% in 2015.

Smoking employees cost companies an average of over $5,000 per year each with the CDC estimating that nearly 20% of deaths in the US can be attributed to smoking. Smoking also leads to long term health care costs for companies that provide health insurance to retirees with smoking leading to conditions that require high dollar care for years such as coronary heart disease and lung cancer.

While employees can not prevent every illness with improved self-care habits, it is absolutely in an employer's best interests to help employees improve their health as much as possible. (Learn more in Three Key Ways Wellness Testing Benefits Companies).

Encourage Healthy Eating Habits

Eating healthy in the workplace can be challenging. Vending machines offer quick convenient snacking during a busy work day. Employers should realize this and assist employees with maintaining a balanced diet. This can be accomplished by providing less processed food options for snacks and ensuring a variety of food options are available in the company cafeteria. Not only will these changes aid in healthy eating, but it also will keep your employees awake for the second half of presentations, since heavy meals tend to lead to sleepy employees.

However, it is vital to not get caught up in the popular food trends of the moment. While many obesity-related articles preach that you should cut sugar and fat, there are many more concerns for employees in the real world. Employees may need a low sodium diet because of heart issues, others may need carbs to support a vigorous exercise routine. Variety and education about options is the best approach. New research is now showing that even for those with diabetes, the previously accepted diabetic diets are not the one solution fits all approach previously adopted by the medical community.

Smoking Cessation

While many employers have already adopted smoke-free workplace rules, just saying "don't do it" is not enough to help a smoking employee to quit. Look into smoking cessation programs your health insurance provider may have available for an addition to your current plan so that employees do not bear the full weight of care and cessation help. An up front cost is nothing compared to the $5,000 every year and more after the employee retires that smokers often cost companies.

Encourage Fitness Goals

Employees whose job functions have limited mobility should be encouraged to take walks during the workday, but these breaks should not replace their rest breaks. Walk periods can be a brief 15 minutes around the cubicle or rotunda areas. Or, the employee can take slightly longer walks on lunch periods around the parking lot or building exterior as their endurance increases.

Set up a stretching program at your workplace. A stretching program helps the employee by increasing the range of motion for core muscle groups. Your health insurance company may have an initiative started and can be of great service when establishing these programs.

In addition, your health insurance carrier may also have incentives for the employee to join fitness gyms, cessation of smoking, and other incentives to encourage a healthier employee. Work with your Human Resources representative and your insurance carrier to identify options that are free or no cost to implement.

However, prior to starting any diet or exercise regimen, it is always recommended that employees speak to their health care professional about any precautions to take. Exercise and diet plans must always be tailored to the individual and employees should never be shamed into attempting something that their bodies may not be ready for, such as running a company marathon quickly after starting an exercise plan.

When planning fitness or dietary goals, remind the employee to keep the goal SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time Sensitive. For instance, the employee wants to lose 20 pounds in 3 months by eating a paleo diet and exercising 30 minutes four times a week. If the employee is an obese person with large amounts of excess body fat, this goal may be achievable. However, if the employee is already in shape with no body fat content, this goal may be unrealistic because they may not have 20 pounds of fat to lose, and in fact it could be dangerous to reduce the body fat further, depending on the body fat level the employee has already achieved. Note that for employees with very little body fat or high muscle percentages, the BMI scale is rarely accurate.

Bottom Line

As the employer, you can make it easier or harder for your employees to follow habits that are healthy for them. You can organize a workshop to help employees set wellness goals. Invite your health insurance provider or occupational physician to participate in the workshop from a health professional point of view. Develop a company wellness program and hold health fairs. Once these goals are set, be cognizant of the employee’s goals and try to accommodate them. For example, if you hold a wellness workshop at the beginning of the month, it would not be encouraging to host a company picnic with hotdogs and hamburgers and no alternative food choices, the next month. (Learn more in "8 Tips for a Successful Company Health Fair"). Make sure that the company leads the initiative to a healthier employee. After all, a healthier employee is a more productive employee, and a more productive employee will contribute more to the bottom line. (Learn more in "Do Workplace Wellness Programs Save Employers Money?")