Sunday, June 29, 2008

Working Towards Wellness - the role of corporates

In the past, the relationship between employers and employees was simple. Employees came to work at the factory and the factory owner paid them for their labour. Working conditions were often poor, and no one complained.

Today, enlightened corporates realize that employees are their most valuable asset and just like they need to invest in training them in order to hone their professional skills, they also need to invest in improving their health. After all, only a healthy employee can be productive !

Corporates have a unique and vital role in improving the wellness, health and physical fitness of employees . After all, most of us spend most of our waking hours at work ; and if our workplace provides us with a healthy working environment, this will help us to remain healthy.

CSR or corporate social responsibility has become a buzzword , but charity begins at home and employers need to address what they can do to help their employees remain well. This is basic business common sense – the first rule of marketing states that you should treat your employees the same way you treat your best customers.

Shouldn’t a company focus on its core competence rather than worry about their employee’s health ? Isn’t remaining healthy the employee’s responsibility ? Or his doctor’s ? Why should the company care ? They should, for purely selfish reasons ! There is a sound business case for companies investing in keeping their employees healthy, because sick leave is a major loss of productive resources.

All employees deal with common health problems daily. “ What can you do to manage your back ache at home ? Is there a safe and simple home remedy for your nagging cough ? Is your child's fever serious ? When should you take him to your doctor ? Your husband has chest pain. Should you panic ? Is this heartburn ? Or a heart-attack ? Should you take the day off ? Or go in to work ? “ Each day absent from work for dealing with medical problems in the employee’s family damages the company’s bottom line ! This is especially true when the problem could easily have been managed without going to a doctor ! Can we afford to lose this precious asset by ignoring it ?

Workplace health promotion (WHP) programmes which target physical inactivity , smoking, alcoholism and unhealthy dietary habits are effective in improving lifestyle related diseases such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease - major risk factors for noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), which are becoming a leading cause of death in developing countries like India. In fact, the World Economic Forum and World Health Organisation released an important report titled "Preventing Non-communicable Diseases in the Workplace", in Geneva in 19 May 2008 and this important issue is going be discussed in the India Economic Summit, New Delhi, India, 15-16 November 2008.

Progressive companies in the USA recognize that unhealthy employees are a financial burden and that wellness programs can provide an effective solution. Instituting wellness programs that help employees adopt healthier behaviors can be an important way to decrease illness, absenteeism, turnover, medical claims; and increase productivity and create a healthier bottom line.

How can Corporate India help to improve the health of Indians ? Traditionally, most companies just pay for their employees’ medical insurance policies, which means they provide financial cover in case of illness. I feel they need to take a more proactive approach and prevent illness ! At present, HR ( Human Resources ) departments think of themselves simply as dispensers of health care entitlements . If an employee falls ill and submits a claim, they feel that their job is to process the claim so that the costs of the medical care are reimbursed. This is very short-sighted !

In the US, employee health management (EHM) programs have been around since the 1970s. However, when employers simply offer free EHM programs and do not offer incentives for participation in them, the uptake of such wellness programs is poor. They attract only those employees who already committed to personal health and fitness, while those most needing to improve these dimensions ignored the opportunity. However, by providing incentives, participation rates of as high as 95% have become possible.

Instead of focusing solely on healthcare and disability claims costs, these programs look at absenteeism reductionism and presenteeism as desired outcomes. They look at employees who have “productivity impairment” behaviors and conditions, including emotional/behavioral problems, inadequate sleep, stress, and similar debilitating factors, many of which are epidemic in call centers and BPOs today, and provide holistic solutions.

Results have been far more positive than earlier EHM investments that focused just on healthcare cost reduction. Productivity “recovery” often increases total economic benefit to employers by two to five times, compared to healthcare cost reduction alone. Progressive companies allow employees to design their own EHM goals, and this has been very helpful since it is the employees’ own personal efforts that make EHM successful.

The good news is that progressive companies in India are now following the US trend. Many companies provide gymnasiums and fitness centers in their campuses; technology companies use the internet to provide their employees with online counseling programs; others offer their employees a free PHR ( Personal Health Record) to help them manage their own health; while others are gifting free copies of the Healthwise Handbook to help their employees to remain healthy.

What’s your company doing to improve the health of its employees ?

NB I wrote this article for Times Wellness, where it was first published.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous9:02 PM

    Dear Dr. Malpani,
    You have captured a perfect snapshot of American and Indian corporate health care systems. My husband is a physical therapist and I am a personal trainer in NYC. We see disease and injury after it occurs, in the form of rehab. A few wealthy companies here in NYC (law firms)do provide gym memberships for their employees in hopes of reducing their stress, chance of heart disease...It must be noted that these are the companies who bill by the hour which forces employees and partners to work longer and longer hours to keep their status.

    In India the influx of work and stress have made your problems mirror ours. However,as you pointed out, Indian companies have an opportunity to learn from American mistakes on how to prevent many stress based diseases, not just try to rehab the patient later.

    We will be returning to India in November to help train fitness professionals and corporations in providing preemptive care.

    Warm regards,
    Michelle Cherry
    [email protected]


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