Leading the Workplace Wellness Movement: Public Health Departments' Role

Sep 23, 2013, 2:44 PM

GUEST POST by John Skendall, Manager, Web and New Media at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO).

“How much are we really doing in the area of worksite wellness? Are we walking the talk and serving our employees the way we should?” This question was posed by Paul Jarris, executive director of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO), in a session on workplace wellness at the organization’s annual meeting last Friday in Orlando.

Jarris said that health departments can do more to foster wellness among employees in the states and territories. “We in public health are not leading in this area,” he said. “We are the laggards.”

>>Follow continued ASTHO Annual Meeting coverage on NewPublicHealth.org.

Terry Dwelle, state health official for the North Dakota Department of Health and moderator of the session, agreed. “Health departments must have a worksite wellness program. We need to practice what we preach,” said Dwelle. He also said that the business case for worksite wellness needs to be made to convince employers of the value of investing in wellness.

Worksite wellness is of growing interest among state and territorial health departments as part of a larger trend among employers to foster an environment where healthy choices become easy choices for employees — beyond the traditional role of providing healthcare insurance coverage. Some workplace wellness strategies include stress reduction, exercise opportunities, and even the design and layout of physical workspace in a way that encourages movement. These efforts are being aligned to create a healthy working atmosphere where employees thrive and are inspired to live healthier lives outside the office as well.

This is a matter of investing in health, not paying for healthcare, explained Dee Edington, founder and chairman of Edington Associates, LLC. He challenged health officials to articulate their vision for a healthy workplace, which includes a broad look at the overall culture and environment.

“If you worked at the best possible organization, how would you describe that?” Edington asked. “How about fun, meaningful work, flexible, creative, resilience, one in which people openly talk to each other?”

Having a vision is imperative to force us into new ways of thinking about wellness in the workplace, Edington said. However, he warned, “individual one-trick ponies do not work.” The entire culture and environment of the office must be changed, not just one small attribute here and there.

Describing some advances already being made, Joseph M. Acierno, director of the Nebraska Division of Public Health, pointed to a program in his state that recognizes employers that have made a commitment to workplace wellness: the Governor’s Excellence in Wellness Award. Acierno also mentioned that Nebraska has a state employee wellness program, including a “Walk This Way” program for state employees to stay physically active.

Paul Jarris encouraged attendees to watch out for further materials from ASTHO around the promotion of worksite wellness among state health departments, including a summary of the worksite wellness program being carried out among its own employees at the ASTHO headquarters in Arlington, Va.

>>Bonus Link: View an infographic on the connection between jobs and health.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.