South Texas Eye Institute, Lasik
Annette M. Zarharoff, MD, PA, Sports Medicine, Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation
IRC of Sout Texas
Lady of America Fitness

Healthy Employees Equal Healthy Business

Addressing the problem of unhealthy habits in the workplace

By Michelle Thomas

Obesity has grown to epidemic levels in the US. Over 30 percent of Americans are considered overweight or obese. San Antonio is no different; we have even been in Men’s Fitness “Top Ten Fattest Cities” list several years in a row! In 2005, San Antonio was awarded Men’s Fitness “Least Athletic City” award.

So what can we do about it? With the everyday challenges of work, school and family, it’s difficult to focus on health. Instead of trying to “find time” for health, we should try to incorporate it into everything we do — starting with work.

Over the last couple of decades, several work-related factors have affected the health of the workforce, including how employees spend more of their day at the work site, which means they have less free time in their lives. Also, employees eat lunch at restaurants serving large portions, and they are utilizing technology that creates a more sedentary day, adding to the problem of obesity and health concerns.

So what do these unhealthy habits mean for businesses? Some of the most common consequences include:

• Unhealthy employees
• Increased absenteeism
• Lower productivity
• Lower morale
• Higher insurance claims and premiums

Some businesses are becoming more proactive by trying to reduce or change the negative impact of unhealthy employees by implementing wellness programs at work. The benefits are not limited to the employees; There are financial incentives for employers as well. Wellness programs are positive recruitment and retention tools, and research shows a significant return on investment when money is invested in comprehensive health promotion programs. The majority of savings are in the reduced number of health insurance claims.

Employers hold a valuable position in wellness initiatives. In order for the program to work well, it is imperative that upper management supports it fully by demonstrating leadership, implementing policies and incentives to make healthy choices the easy choices and promoting coverage for, and use of, preventive health services. They also should understand that they are the role models for the rest of the employees. They are there to model, support and encourage participation in the program.

One employer that has taken steps to create a healthier workforce is the City of San Antonio (COSA). Spearheaded by Steps to a Healthier San Antonio, a program of the San Antonio Metro Health District, the City is implementing a comprehensive work site wellness program for COSA employees. The Employee Wellness Advisory Committee will guide the programming to ensure that the focus is on relevant issues and that all programs are evidence-based.

City of San Antonio low-cost, high-impact
initiatives already in place

• COSA Walks the Talk – A walking program for groups and individuals.
• Bathroom Banter –
One-page health message sheets in bathroom stalls.
• Break Room Programs –
Educational and motivational signs.
• Stairwell Initiatives –
Posters encouraging stair usage.
• Wellness Wednesday –
Monthly educational meetings.
• Annual Employee Health Fair –
Information on health and insurance benefits.
• Mass Communications –
Health & benefits awareness information via Intranet & employee newsletters.

The City recognizes the positive impact that these and other programs will have on the health of its employees, their families and, ultimately, on the health of the City as a whole. Some of the benefits the City expects to realize are lower health insurance rates, more productive employees, improved morale, less absenteeism and, of course, healthier employees.

Desirable employees want to work for a company who cares about them, and what better way is there to show you care than to do something to improve someone’s health? Other companies that have wellness programs are the cities of Austin, Houston and Dallas, USAA, HEB, the U.S. Coast Guard, Wells Fargo, PepsiCo and Corning Incorporated.

“How do I get my company to start a work site wellness program?” you may ask. Whether you are in management or a front-line employee, you can make a difference. It’s important to gain support of a wellness program from your co-workers so you can guarantee participation, but it is even more important to gain upper management support to ensure that the program will actually happen.

When upper management has put its seal of approval on the idea, it’s a smart move to develop a wellness committee. The size and structure will vary depending on the size and structure of the business, but such a committee will add credibility and give the wellness program a face (or faces). When working as an effective team, the committee will also be able to provide stability and sustainability and lighten the load. According to Moving into Action, a publication of the Centers for Disease Control, survey findings revealed that work sites that had wellness committees or coordinators offered a greater number of employee health and wellness services.

Once your program is established, don’t forget to celebrate successes. Even the least expensive incentives, like recognition, keep people motivated and excited. Remember, your goal is to encourage long-term healthy lifestyles for everyone!

Resources for work site wellness programs

• Steps to a Healthier San Antonio, Metro Health: (210) 207-8846
• Wellness Councils of America:
• CDC Stairwell Initiative:
• Texas Department of State Health Services:

Michelle Thomas is a work site wellness liaison for Steps-SA, a program of the San Antonio Metro Health District. The program is funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is part of Steps to a Healthier U.S., a national program focusing on the prevention of diabetes, obesity and asthma and addressing related risk factors – poor nutrition, physical inactivity and tobacco use and exposure.


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