About half of large employers offer wellness programs hoping to reduce health care costs and improve worker health. Yet results are a mixed bag. Dr. Elizabeth Klodas is a cardiologist in Minneapolis and co-founder of a nutritional products company. She speaks to employers about developing effective wellness programs. Workforce Managing Editor Rick Bell caught up with Klodas in an email interview.
Workforce: A couple decades into corporate wellness programs we’re finally discovering they aren’t the total answer to healthy employees. Why did it take so long?
Elizabeth Klodas: Effecting change takes a long time, and assessing the impact of the change can take just as long. Coupled with a more mobile workforce and relatively low participation rates within workplace wellness programs, determining whether what you’ve been doing is actually reaping the promised rewards has been a challenge.
WF: Why does nutrition seem to be the lost component here?
Klodas: Nutrition isn’t necessarily lost, but the frequent focus on weight loss limits the potential impact of nutrition interventions.
WF: What don’t executives and benefits managers understand about nutrition?
Klodas: Expensive chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease are, by and large, food-borne illnesses. Improving the nutritional status of all employees is the most important and impactful wellness modification that can be implemented within a workforce. In addition, changes in nutrition yield almost immediate health results. And, unlike exercise, which is episodic and voluntary, employees have to eat multiple times each day, every day. To not use each meal as a health-promoting intervention is a huge missed opportunity.
WF: Is it more than a daily bowl of fruit and posters in the lunchroom?
Klodas: That approach is far too passive and not individualized enough. It’s not enough to teach — you have to provide resources that make it easy to activate around the education. Telling someone to stop smoking will rarely yield the desired result. You also have to point them to credible methods to achieve quitting and incent them to participate. Food is no different. Nutrition needs vary depending upon underlying health issues, genetic predispositions, life stages and personal choices. Not individualizing nutrition interventions would be much like simply instructing everyone to start jogging.
WF: What in your mind is the perfect nutritional wellness program?
Klodas: It is supremely practical. It includes tracking incented food product consumption and encourages measurements of the biochemical effects of dietary change. The incented foods are not just better for you, but actually right for you and defined by condition and risk-factor assessment. The food interventions are actionable, and recognize that most employees are time-stressed and cannot sustain wholesale changes in their food habits all at once. But the program does build gradually on small successes over time.