What should employers do to keep people healthy?

6/12/2013 10:44:00 AM
Vik Khana isn't so sure that some of the heavy-handed parenting employers are increasingly engaged in when it comes to employees' health is the right way to go. For example, many employers have recently started charging higher insurance premiums to employees who smoke or are obese, unless they demonstrate they are taking action to become healthier. My employer offers incentives including paid leave to employees who work to improve their health.

One sentence that stood out from Khana's brief essay, though, was this
Organizational cultures should be configured around health centric messaging and tools that help people voluntarily, and by following exemplary health leaders, elevate themselves and change the trajectory of their health lives.
In that spirit, it seems to me that the single best thing any downtown employer can do for employee health is offer a free, on-site gym for employees. If I'm not mistaken, "too busy with work" is the single biggest reason why people say they don't exercise as much as they'd like. But if the gym was right at work, where they will be going everyday anyway, then this dramatically reduces the amount of time a workout would take out of their day. To give an idea of the savings, just consider that for a person who works out 30 minutes a day--enough to beat the government recommendations--would typically spend twice that much time commuting back and forth to their gym. If the gym is at their work location, then almost all that commute is gone, and workouts take less than 35% of the time the would otherwise require. So a free on-site employee gym would reduce the cost of staying healthy along two dimensions: 1) it saves time and 2) no membership fee.

But there is also a second way in which this policy would help people be healthier. If there's a gym at the work location, the employees can do their workouts immediately after work, and thereby avoid the rush hour traffic. This makes them healthier in lots of ways. One is no rush hour means less stress, which has lots of proven benefits. Another is less time spend inhaling toxic highway fumes from all those cars stuck, engines burning, in the same area for hours on end. A number of health hazards from exposure to highways have been documented such as, for example, is elevated incidence of asthma in children. A third benefit is that reduced travel times will help prevent deep-vein thrombosis, which can be a pretty serious health hazard for people with long commutes. Finally, there is the most obvious health improvement: less travel time saves lives. Time spent driving or riding in a car puts people at serious risk of death or serious injury, and this risk increases significantly as the amount of traffic congestion increases. Hence, being able to avoid rush hour reduces health risk along two dimensions here: less time spent on the road, and less congestion experienced while on the road.

So if you are a CEO looking for a way to boost employee health and moral, adding a free on-site gym might just be the easiest, cheapest, most effective thing you can do.