When we think about occupations that are hazardous to our health, steel worker, logger and jet pilot probably come to mind. But there is growing evidence that some jobs with far less thrill value are also linked to poor worker health—and higher medical costs for employers. In the case of call center workers—the growing cadre of employees who spend hours sitting at their desks, tethered to telephone headsets—a sedentary work environment significantly raises their risk for obesity, diabetes and other chronic illnesses. These jobs can also lead to a shorter lifespan, with research finding that people who spend 23 hours a week on sedentary activities have a 64% greater risk of dying from heart disease than those who are more active.
How can corporate health promotion programs impact the health and well-being of this growing segment of U.S. workers? Maine-based retailer L.L. Bean offers a promising model. The company’s Healthy Bean initiative used data collected from 4,000 employee health risk assessments (HRAs) and biometric tests to identify sites where health indicators were the most troubling. What they found was that the largest concentration of employees at greatest risk for medical and emotional problems worked at Bean’s three Maine-based call centers. At the Bangor call center, for example, the average age of the mostly female workforce was 54, 71.4% had elevated blood pressure, 67% were obese (BMI over 30), 11% were diabetic and almost 60% reported feeling emotional stress.
The challenge was designing a health promotion intervention that could really impact call center workers. At Bean, as at most companies, call center employees have difficulty accessing many of a company’s health promotion offerings. As lower-income shift workers, they are paid for the time they spend logged in and answering calls. Companies allow breaks for lunch and a few minutes to use the bathroom or get a cup of coffee. But the lack of flexibility in their schedules makes going to an exercise class, taking a walk or attending a wellness lunch session nearly impossible.
With this in mind, Bean ran a one-year pilot program in Bangor for 24 obese employees who had multiple health risks. The program included exercise, nutrition, and an emotional well-being component three times a week during work hours. What did they learn? There needed to be more emphasis on accountability for participants coming to class and keeping logs documenting their activity, according to Stephanie Harvie, Manager for Wellness Operations at Bean. Also, she says, “We greatly underestimated the importance of providing EAP services to address emotional well-being, financial stress and family difficulties the participants were dealing with” that addressed employees’ high rates of depression and emotional and financial stress.
A second pilot with 20 employees at Bean’s Lewiston call center took these lessons into consideration. This time, the wellness staff teamed up with the company’s Employee Assistance Program and conducted a baseline assessment of each participant to identify any mental health, personal and financial issues. In addition to nutrition and exercise programs, the Lewiston pilot also provided group and individual counseling to address issues such as body image, coping mechanisms and realistic goal-setting. If employees didn’t participate fully, staff worked with them to address barriers and make expectations clear, if participation and engagement levels did not improve, they were asked to leave the pilot. “We made it clear, you need to be accountable,” says Harvie. This time, results were encouraging: Average weight loss was 14.7 lbs. (ranging from gaining 12 lbs. to losing 66.3), cardiovascular fitness improved 25%, flexibility improved 20%, muscular strength increased 15% and muscular endurance was up 58%.
Of course, scaling up L.L. Bean’s pilot programs to reach all high-risk call center workers might be impractical—and expensive. But to really embrace the notion of a culture of health, it is vital that companies extend their health promotion programs to employees at all pay levels—including manufacturing line workers, call center staff and sales staff—who use tobacco, suffer from obesity, high blood pressure and/or depression. This includes providing healthy food and snack options at all facilities, having onsite fitness centers with extended hours to accommodate hourly workers who have to exercise either before or after their shifts, and incentives that take a bite out of monthly insurance premiums.
In many of the companies we visited, wellness was in fact trickling down to all levels and pay grades. We saw line managers leading regular stretching breaks at Turck. We heard about manufacturing workers at Janssen Pharmaceuticals (part of Johnson & Johnson) getting time off to attend a one- or two-day program to learn about optimizing their health and performance. We saw cardio equipment stationed right outside USAA’s call centers, where workers are encouraged to take a 10-minute active break. The financial services company also lets these shift employees combine lunch and break time into an hour-long period so they can attend a yoga class or train at the on-site gym. At Lincoln Industries we heard about how leadership offers a 10-week Fuel For Performance program for line workers; the program focuses on healthy food, physical activity and better sleep habits. Managers are rated on how well they implement this and other wellness programs and if they result in productivity gains.
Inactivity is a growing threat to the health and well-being of America’s workers. Best-practice companies recognize this and tailor well-designed health promotion programs to meet the needs of all employees—especially those shift workers who are at highest risk for injury and chronic illness.
Written with support by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation