New Standards Set for Workplace Wellness Programs

Posted March 2, 2016

Having comprehensive workplace wellness programs (CWWPs) in place doesn’t mean the programs are necessarily effective in improving employees’ cardiovascular status. Although a 2013 Kaiser Family Foundation survey found a substantial majority of employers (77%) offer wellness programs, many CWWPs don’t adequately track and evaluate heart health, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

To help organizations improve CWWPs, the AHA assembled an advisory panel of cardiology, population, workplace health and preventive medicine experts to extensively evaluate workplace wellness programs. The panel’s recommendations, released in a new report by the AHA and recently published in the journal Circulation, could have a far-reaching positive impact on 1 of the nation’s biggest health problems — cardiovascular disease.

Approximately 800,000 people in the U.S. die from cardiovascular diseases (including heart attacks and stroke) annually, accounting for about 1 in every 3 deaths. In addition to being the No. 1 killer of Americans, cardiovascular diseases are a primary cause of disability and cost the economy approximately $312.6 billion in health care expenditures and lost productivity each year.

However, cardiovascular disease is largely preventable and lifestyle changes can go far in improving the health of many who already have heart disease. Worksites that support blood pressure control, cholesterol management, smoking cessation, good nutrition and physical activity can be integral in promoting cardiovascular health, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“If we can increase the proportion of the 155 million working-age adults in the United States with improved cardiovascular health, we will make a major step towards achieving our 2020 impact goal of improving the cardiovascular health of all Americans by 20% and decreasing mortality from cardiovascular diseases by 20%,” says Elliott M. Antman, MD, associate dean for clinical and translational research at Harvard Medical School and immediate past president of the AHA.

The AHA panel outlined 5 evidence-based elements that any CWWP must have to be considered truly comprehensive: health education, wellness screenings, supportive social and physical environments, integration into other organizational initiatives and linkage to other relevant programs including employee health and safety programs.

After reviewing research into workplace wellness programs and 6 major workplace recognition programs, the panel concluded there are 2 primary gaps in knowledge about CWWPs that employers need to address. First, recognition programs that score the effectiveness of a CWWP should be consistent. In addition, CWWP recognition programs must measure and score employees’ levels of cardiovascular health.

To help organizations track employees’ cardiovascular health with a consistent, science-backed scoring system, the AHA panel recommended employers use the AHA’s Life’s Simple 7 (7 health measures proven to significantly impact heart health).

he Simple 7 steps to help prevent cardiovascular disease and improve heart health:

1. Stop smoking.
2. Get active.
3. Lose weight.
4. Eat better.
5. Manage blood pressure.
6. Control cholesterol.
7. Reduce blood sugar.

The AHA’s My Life Check online tool calculates an employee’s level of cardiovascular health based on these factors and provides a score, which ranges from 1 to 10. Tracking changing scores can reveal how effective wellness programs are and how well CWWPs are working to improve cardiovascular health.

“As employers increasingly adopt or refine workplace wellness programs, they need guidance on evidence-based measures and optimal programs that will ultimately improve employee health — or they will not fulfill the true potential of such programs,” says panel chair Gregg C. Fonarow, MD, professor of cardiovascular medicine and science at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Our recommendations provide a blueprint for employers to accurately track the heart health of their employees and provide clear, evidence-based solutions to improve cardiovascular health.”