The University Record, January 21, 1998

Healthy employees help companies reap financial benefits

Regular exercise is just one of many healthy activities individuals can undertake to move themselves from a high- to a low-risk health behavior group, ultimately saving money for their employer. File photo by Bob Kalmbach

By Deborah Gilbert
News and Information Services

Corporations and businesses that resolve in 1998 to encourage employees to buckle up, exercise regularly and avoid fats in 1998 will reap bottom line benefits by the year 2001, and perhaps sooner.

A study of 796 Steelcase Inc. employees by the U-M Health Management Research Center found that average annual health care costs declined $129 (from $1,122 to $993) among employees who shifted from high-risk to low-risk health behaviors over a three-year period.

On the other hand, average annual health care costs rose $734 (from $680 to $1,414) for employees who shifted from a low-risk to a high-risk group over the three-year period. Health care costs for employees who maintained their low-risk status over the three years rose just $68 while costs for those who remained in the high-risk group rose $287 ($1,122 to $1,409). The health care cost and health behavior data were collected at Steelcase in 1985 and 1988. (All costs are expressed in 1996 dollars.)

"We were particularly pleased to see that there was an increasing trend toward healthier behaviors. Indeed, 111 employees moved from the high-risk to the low-risk group. On the other hand, 59 employees moved from the low-risk to the high-risk group, leaving a net gain of 52 employees to the low-risk group, or 6.5 percent of the total number of employees," says Dee W. Edington, professor of kinesiology and director of the Health Management Research Center.

"Clearly, to increase the size of the low-risk group, employers must not only urge those with poor health behaviors to improve, but they must also encourage those with good health behaviors to maintain them."

Among those who improved their health behaviors, the risk reductions appeared most often in safety belt use, blood pressure control and lowered cholesterol. Among those whose behaviors slipped, the increased risk appeared most often in lack of exercise, high cholesterol, excessive weight gain, and high blood pressure. Other health factors that were assessed included smoking, drug use, absences due to illness, and use of alcohol.

Ten percent of the employees accounted for 65 percent to 68 percent of the health care costs to the corporation, Edington points out, adding that, "the study confirms that improving individual employee health status is associated with financial benefits for the corporation." The study appears in the November 1997 issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.