Is anyone else feeling overwhelmed? The popular news media is full of apocalyptic scenarios that have the two of us feeling pretty exhausted. Everywhere we look the world seems to be teetering on the edge of a cliff—the economy, the environment, even honeybees. Our areas of expertise—medicine and public health—are no exception. For instance, workers managing one or more chronic diseases will be more and more common as the workforce ages and as a younger, less healthy generation joins the workforce. But instead of adding to the general anxiety by recounting doomsday statistics about the rising costs of medical care or the high rates of obesity and diabetes, we have suggestions that may bring some relief. Here are some practical things that employers can do to promote the health and wellness of their aging workers. These three steps will help keep your organization’s sky from falling.
Step 1: Promote preventive screening tests that have been proven to be a good idea.
The Affordable Care Act of 2009 requires that all private insurance policies pay for (at no additional cost to the patient) a list of recommended services, including certain screening tests and vaccines. Employers can promote the use of these services by simple and inexpensive means such as posters, electronic communication, and worksite wellness meetings. Employers can help older workers (and younger workers) know how their preventive service schedules change as everyone ages at work. When you can, offer and promote tests on site.
Step 2: Commit to chronic disease management programs, either by developing them within the company or hiring a third party to run them.
The quickest way to realize cost savings from worksite wellness activities is by helping employees with existing chronic diseases to keep their conditions in check through disease management programs. A study by the RAND Corporation found that Pepsico experienced a return on investment of $3.80 from its disease management programs, compared to a $0.50 return on its lifestyle management programs that focused on physical activity and diet among all employees, regardless of health status. The majority of the cost savings from Pepsico’s disease management programs came from a 30-percent reduction in hospital admissions. Notably, RAND clearly stated that organizational commitment is important for a program’s success. Simply having a program on the books is not enough to realize financial benefits. Employers and employees need to be engaged in order to maximize program effectiveness and minimize the potential for discrimination. The most common chronic conditions among workers 55 and over are arthritis, hypertension (that is, high blood pressure), heart disease, and diabetes.
Step 3: Introduce universal design solutions that work for everyone.
The total cost attributable to arthritis in the United States was estimated to be $128 billion as of 2003 (the most recent year for which figures are available). Nearly half of the workforce age 55 and over has some form of arthritis. We’ve written about universal design in general terms before, but there is no better example of universal design for arthritis than the OXO Good Grips brand of kitchen tools. Sam Farber invented the first OXO tool when he noticed that his wife (who had mild osteoarthritis) was having difficulty peeling apples for a tart. His designs proved to be immensely popular among people with and without arthritis. This is the essence of universal design–maximizing the number of people who use a product, place, or service with a design that works well for as many people as possible. A company that doesn’t have a human factors engineer or ergonomist on staff can hire one as a consultant to identify workplace barriers and solutions. In the meantime, a company can start with simple steps, like replacing door knobs with door handles. In addition to the physical environment, organizational policies can be universally designed. Workplace flexibility works for older workers with elderly parents, as well as employees who have young children.
While these three steps may not prevent a healthpocalypse, they may ensure that you and your employees are among the last ones standing.
Kenneth Scott, MPH
Colorado School of Public Health
Sloan Center on Aging & Work
Brian D. Williams, MD
Colorado School of Public Health