If New Jersey workers are going to get healthier, they have the best chance of changing unhealthy habits where they spend much of their time: at work.
That’s why state Health Commissioner Mary E. O’Dowd urged a group of business leaders yesterday to take steps to help their employees improve their health.
O’Dowd cited national estimates that chronic diseases cause workers to miss 45 million days of work annually and cost $153 billion in lost productivity.
“I really think that it’s important for the employer organizations and business communities not only to recognize the impact [employee health] has on their bottom line, but also to be part of the solution,” said O’Dowd. She spoke at an event at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck hosted by the Commerce and Industry Association of New Jersey.
She noted national studies that say the two places Americans are most likely to learn better health habits are at school and at their workplace. “Changing those environments can have the most dramatic impact on overall health,” she said.
The opportunities for employers to make a difference include Shaping NJ, a program in which public health employees and employers work together to provide information on how people can improve their diets and exercise routines.
O’Dowd noted that this program is part of a broader effort to reduce the risk factors that lead to chronic diseases, which contribute to seven of 10 deaths in the state.
“There are small and yet meaningful changes that employers can make,” O’Dowd said.
O’Dowd’s speech focused on a broad range of projects that state health officials are pursuing, including the continuing effort to help residents recover from Hurricane Sandy.
One of the largest public health issues related to the storm is the continuing emotional problems that some residents face, O’Dowd said. She noted that the Sandy-related symptoms include agitation, jitteriness, anxiety, fearfulness, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating.
She encouraged employers to work with their human resources personnel or employee assistance programs to support troubled workers.
“You know that if you have a tired or fatigued individual at work who has difficulty concentrating, you’re not getting the best performance out of that individual,” O’Dowd said. “And so it’s important that you know what’s going on in your community.”
O’Dowd also noted employer-based blood drives as an important way to boost public health. She indicated that the host committee for the Super Bowl is promoting blood drives ahead of the February event and offering tickets to the game to winners in a drawing from all the donors.
“You can host a blood drive in your workplace or work with area organizations to do the same thing,” O’Dowd said.
She expressed hope that the Super Bowl promotion will build on a campaign in the summer of 2012 that led to a 13.8 percent increase in blood drives and an 11.2 percent increase in blood donations.
Along with blood drives, the Super Bowl also is raising public health awareness about vaccinations. O’Dowd said that the 2012 game in Indianapolis led to a measles outbreak.
“It’s something we’re concerned about, because we know we’ll get international visitors and a significant number of them,” she said. “So it’s something to remind your workforce of, or your community of, to make sure that they have been vaccinated.”
O’Dowd’s talk was warmly received by the roughly 65 executives who attended the event.
Holy Name President and CEO Michael Maron said O’Dowd and other state officials have correctly focused on schools and the workplace.
“Those are very effective forums to implement change and improve the overall population health,” Maron said, noting that the hospital has started an initiative to encourage exercise classes for its own employees. If the program is successful, it will promote the effort to businesses that the hospital works with, he said.
Tom Considine, chief operating officer of health plan management company Magnacare, said he sent the company’s human resources head a note about the Super Bowl blood drives. “Somebody could win a ticket to the Super Bowl as a result,” said Considine, who served alongside O’Dowd in Gov. Chris Christie’s cabinet as the former state banking and insurance commissioner.