Benefits and Compensation, Talent

The Heart-Healthy Guide to Approaching Employee Wellness

by Wendy McLaughlin, Health and Wellness Consultant at LifeWorks

February brings with it a number of holidays and observances, from Groundhog Day and President’s Day in the U.S. to Valentine’s Day throughout the world. But as we celebrate love, Washington’s birthday, and everyone’s favorite groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, a national health observance goes unnoticed by most.

Heart health

In addition to all of these light-hearted holidays and observances, February is National Heart Month. First declared by former President Obama back in 2015, the annual campaign is designed to bring awareness to cardiovascular disease, including heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure.

Despite being widely-known as the nation’s leading killer, this national health observance often gets overlooked. But consider this: in the time it took you to read up until this point, someone in the United States has had a stroke.

According to the American Heart Association’s 2017 Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics Update, every 40 seconds, on average, someone in the U.S. has a stroke. And someone dies of a stroke every 4 minutes.

This is the harsh reality of heart health today. The good news is HR professionals and employers can do something about it.

In honor of National Heart Month, here are some common areas that affect heart health and a few heart-healthy ways to approach employee wellness:

1. Diet and Exercise

Maintaining a healthy weight helps you maintain a healthy heart. In fact, a recent study published in Cell Metabolism found that losing just 5% of body weight can lower risks for developing cardiovascular disease. If you weigh 200 pounds, that’s a mere 10 pounds to lose.

Fortunately, diet and exercise is something many companies already address with their employee wellness programs.

Employee wellness tip: Traditional wellness programs address diet and exercise in the form of on-site gyms or healthy snack options. While these initiatives are on the right track, they don’t necessarily hold employees accountable.

And sometimes, a bit of accountability is all that’s needed to stay on top of our health.

To add an accountability factor to your employee wellness program, consider creating wellness challenges the whole team—or even family members—can participate in, such as a team field day or walking meetings.

For example, The Motley Fool, which topped Glassdoor’s Best Small and Medium Companies to Work For in 2015, makes fitness a part of their company culture.

Their wellness culture is supported by five programs, which consist of weekly yoga, quick 5-minute workouts every day, and monthly culture outings that involve hiking, snow-tubing, or attending Colorado Rockies games. Because these programs are focused on teambuilding, employees will hold their peers accountable for participating.

To further keep employees motivated, gamify your wellness program using fitness trackers. This allows employees to track their physical activity and see where they stand in company leaderboards.

2. Smoking

Most of us have seen—and been scarred by—an antismoking public service announcement featuring a smoker’s heart or lungs versus that of a nonsmoker’s. It isn’t pretty. Yet, the effects of smoking continue to plague workers today.

A report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that smokers are more likely than nonsmokers to develop coronary heart disease and stroke. In fact, it’s estimated to increase the risk for heart disease and stroke by two to four times.

Employee wellness tip: If you notice a lot of your employees frequently take smoke breaks, it might be worth adding a smoking cessation program to your employee wellness offerings.

The American Lung Association’s Freedom From Smoking program, for example, is touted as one of the most effective smoking cessation programs used by employers, health plans, and other organizations.

The program offers a number of self-help resources, helps participants set and work toward quit day, and provides ongoing support to help them remain smoke-free.

3. Stress

Workplace stress is common—even helpful, at times, as it motivates employees to get things done. But there’s a fine line between a healthy amount of stress and an overwhelming amount of stress.

New research published in The Lancet found that heightened activity in the amygdala—a region of the brain involved in stress—is associated with a greater risk of heart disease and stroke.

Employee wellness tip: A true sense of employee well-being requires going beyond physical health and addressing mental and emotional health.

To do this, incorporate stress management initiatives into your employee wellness program. This can be as simple as encouraging walking breaks or as creative as embracing a pet-friendly office (which 86% of employees surveyed by Banfield Pet Hospital say reduces stress).

Companies like Unilever approach their employees’ well-being holistically. As part of their mental well-being strategy, they look at four pillars—leadership and management, communication and culture, scoping resilience and managing pressure, and support. Each pillar consists of goals and elements that address the specific field of mental health.

4. Sleep

If you find yourself hitting the snooze button one too many times before finally getting out of bed in the morning, this might be a sign you’re not getting enough sleep. And a lack of sleep can spell heart problems later on.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep is essential to maintaining a healthy heart. And not getting between 6 and 8 hours per night can lead to a greater risk for cardiovascular disease—regardless of how well you keep up with the wellness tips above.

Yet, sleep deprivation costs the U.S. up to $411 billion a year in lost productivity and even mortality, according to a recent RAND study. Fortunately, the study also found that getting just one extra hour of sleep could add $226.4 billion to the U.S. economy—not to mention, cut a person’s mortality rate in half.

Employee wellness tip: Educate employees on the importance of getting a restful night’s sleep and the effects of not doing so can have on heart health.

To help employees do just that, encourage them to set healthy boundaries by identifying a time to disengage from blue-light activities (computers, television, social media, mobile devices, etc.) for a period of time before bed. Blue light emitted from these devices can disrupt sleep because it prevents the release of melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone.

Want to take it another step further? Invest in an employee assistance program (EAP). EAPs provide licensed and credentialed professionals covering everything from counseling to health and wellness coaching to individualized care services. This way, employees can easily stay on top of their heart health by first addressing the underlying causes.

What are some other heart-healthy ways to approach employee wellness?

Wendy McLaughlin is a Health and Wellness Consultant at LifeWorks, an EAP that takes a holistic approach to employee assistance and well-being with a robust offering of perks, recognition, rewards, and a communication platform. Follow LifeWorks on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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