Employers looking to keep their workers well are receiving a boost from the NJ Department of Health.
The department has put together a ‘toolkit’ for building, maintaining and evaluating worksite wellness programs, covering everything from how to build support for the program among managers and workers to how to fund it.
The 45-page guide, “Working Well in New Jersey,” is drawing interest from businesses, nonprofits and government offices around the state.
Of the 96 employers that received the toolkit through April 24, most were medium-sized, with several dozen to a few hundred workers. And 46 percent didn’t have any existing programs to encourage workers to be active.
Physical activity and a good diet are crucial to heading off heart disease and stroke, two leading causes of death and disability.
But in order for people to make lasting changes in diet and exercise, it helps to receive reinforcement in every part of their lives, including the 36 percent of waking hours that working-age adults spend in the workplace.
That’s why Health Commissioner Mary E. O’Dowd says employers are well-positioned to make a difference.
“Due to the amount of time spent in the workplace, employers have a unique opportunity to impact and improve health for their workforce,” she said.
Some of the first employers to adopt the toolkit were in the healthcare sector, attempting to practice what they preach. They include Saint Peter’s University Hospital in New Brunswick, where an existing wellness committee is using the toolkit as a guide to organize and broaden its efforts, which already includes an annual weight-loss contest and a discount on health insurance premiums for workers who undergo annual health screenings.
Committee co-chairwoman Renee Figurski, a registered nurse, said the state toolkit encouraged the hospital to conduct an online survey of employees to determine their health needs and design new wellness programs. The hospital is also developing a list of sources to refer employees to for more information on how to address their individual health issues.
Another idea that Saint Peter’s committee took from the toolkit was to use an electronic activity tracker to count the number of steps in a couple of one-mile walking “maps” in and around the hospital. Workers who want to walk for a mile or two can use these maps during breaks.
“It’s a fabulous toolkit,” Figurski said. “Anybody who’s looking to do this or get something started — this is a great place to start.”
Figurski said she appreciates that many of the recommendations are free or low-cost, such as mapping out the walks.
“You can spend as much money as you’re able, but it’s not the type of things that you have to spend a lot of money to do,” Figurski said.
Figurski said the Saint Peter’s program is moving to the point where it will draw on information in the toolkit on how to assess whether the workplace wellness efforts are successful . This may include a follow-up survey of workers to see if they have made long-lasting changes in their behavior because of programs started at work.
“That’s definitely one of our goals — to see if what we’re doing is effective and what we need to do to tweak them to make them better,” she said.
Another way that employers are looking to improve their workers’ health is by eliminating smoking around their offices. Saint Peter’s became smoke-free last November and is offering free smoking-cessation programs. State officials report that 75 percent of early toolkit users have formal policies banning tobacco use.
Saint Peter’s, with its thousands of workers, is at one end of the size spectrum among program participants. The 13-worker New Jersey Prevention Network in Lakewood is at theother end.
Prevention Network Executive Director Diane Litterer said the organization has already been inspired by the toolkit to change what it offers to eat and drink at the meetings it organizes Soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages are out; water and at least one healthy food choice are in.
Litterer added that her tiny office has launched a walking club, and encourages workers to take some time during the workday to get some exercise. She added that she’s not worried about losing worker productivity during these walking breaks, since the workers return to their desks energized.
“It’s certainly better than a cigarette break,” she said.
And while larger companies may see a major return on their investment in wellness programs, Litterer said employers of all sizes have an interest in having healthy workers.
“It’s still worth it as a small business,” said Litterer.
The organization has given pedometers to each worker, which on days where the network organizes events has led to workers competing to see who walks the most steps.
“We’re still working through (the toolkit) to see what kind of things we can accomplish,” Litterer said. “We kind of feel that it’s a work in progress. It’s a good guide to help us through that process.”
Employers have been receptive so far, she said.
“The staff really appreciates it. It’s not like we require everyone to walk and eat healthy,” she said.
People can visit the program’s website to register for a toolkit or to get more information.