Sitting on a Big Problem

How to engage employees and improve their health in the process.
April 11, 2017 AT 11:00 AM
David Kidd
By Lisa Wong  |  Senior Fellow, Governing Institute
Lisa Wong is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and former mayor of Fitchburg, Mass.

Government is sometimes known more for bureaucrats sitting behind desks than for innovation. Even government workers who focus on innovation and efficiencies still conjure up the image of office employees sitting all day.

So when Dr. James Levine, an obesity expert at the Mayo Clinic, said that sitting all day is not only bad for our health, but is actually deadlier than smoking, it prompted both controversy and action.

The state of Colorado bought five treadmill desks with a $12,000 grant. Dallas bought them for the 100 employees at its 311 call center. And Lynchburg, Va., bought 10 as part of its Work Healthy initiative for businesses across the county.

Results have been mixed. One city reported low participation because employees are afraid of looking like they are not working. There is also some criticism due to the high cost of the treadmill desks, which can run over $2,000 per unit. However, most wellness programs are generally well received when there is buy-in from the employees.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health surveyed 10,000 worksites across the state in 2014 and created a scorecard to measure how each site promoted and protected employee health and well-being. Survey findings showed that employees want to see a visible commitment by leadership, a transparent plan, a good assessment of their needs, tools for data and evaluation, and good program design. A supportive organizational culture was also deemed a key element to the success of a wellness program.

The survey recommended that employers:

  • Ensure programs are available to all employees.
  • Use incentives or other strategies to enhance participation.
  • Have an active wellness committee.
  • Dedicate a champion who is an advocate for the program.
  • Conduct regular health and safety audits.

Some strategies the survey recommends to help create a supportive work environment and promote health are:

  • Establish a workplace wellness coordinator(s) and/or wellness committee(s) to guide the planning and implementation of the wellness program based on the needs of employees.
  • Have wellness responsibilities, including staff time to carry out duties, written into the job description and performance review process for wellness champion and wellness committee members.
  • Create a health-promoting environment (e.g., onsite walking paths, healthy cafeteria/vending selections, showers).
  • Establish health and safety policies (e.g., prohibit the use of tobacco).
  • Include workers in making improvements to the work organization.
  • Establish systems to prevent and remedy workplace hazards.
  • Establish routine labor-management communication and collaboration on health, safety and wellness.