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Balancing Acts

Sick, on the job

Nation’s health suffers as trying economic times ratchet stress up at work

By Maggie Jackson
Globe Correspondent / October 18, 2009

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Don’t read this sitting down. Walk, jog, take the stairs - anything to help soften the news that the health of the American worker is appalling, and declining.

As the national health care debate heats up, a timely report from the nonprofit Families and Work Institute details the worrying effect of a stressed-out, time-strapped, overworked era. Too many of us are fat, sick, sleepless, and inactive. Just 28 percent of US workers say their health is excellent, down from 34 percent six years ago. And businesses are suffering as a result, not simply from rising costs for health care. Workers in poor health are less likely to be loyal, engaged, and satisfied with their jobs, the findings show.

As we might suspect, health insurance makes a difference. Those with coverage are more likely to report sleeping well, being less stressed, and feeling in excellent health than those without it, according to the report. But insurance isn’t the whole story. So holistic is the issue of health that even a respectful boss is linked to worker wellness, the researchers say.

“You have to pay attention to the small things, the way people treat each other, whether there are opportunities to learn, whether people’s input is asked for and considered,’’ says Ellen Galinsky, president of the New York-based institute. The report is largely based on data comparing worker health in 2002 and 2008.

I can see the connection: unreasonable boss = high stress = daily cookie habit = expanding tummy.

Nearly 40 percent of employees in a highly “effective’’ workplace - where people are trusted and supported - report being in excellent health, double the number of those who say they’re in the best health at less effective companies. The institute defines an effective workplace as one offering a climate of trust and respect, learning opportunities, worker autonomy, work-life fit, supervisor support, and economic security. High work-life support and flexibility are especially linked to good health outcomes.

In turn, good health is correlated with good work: More than a third of those who say they are in excellent health are highly engaged, versus less than a quarter of workers who say they are in poor health.

Of course, it’s hard to think much about exercise or getting home on time if your job is on the line, or if your company is going through rocky times.

Even before the recession, work was demanding and hectic. Nowadays, people are even more time-squeezed, and anxious about money, too.

The result? Bad habits.

“People are stressed, they aren’t exercising, not eating well, not taking care of their health,’’ says Alison Magee, vice president of clinical services at Providence-based Sobel and Raciti Associates Inc., which provides employee assistance programs to companies including Staples Inc. and Citizens Bank. Those working long or unpredictable hours find it particularly hard to stick to an exercise or dieting regimen, she says.

Still, there is progress on some fronts. More employers are realizing that health goes beyond on-site fitness centers and low-fat cafeteria muffins. What began as a wave of wellness programs a few years ago has expanded into a wider emphasis on sustainable life habits on and off the job.

“The trend among leading companies is to create a culture of well-being and health,’’ says Randall Abbott, a Boston-based senior health care consultant with Watson Wyatt, a human resources consulting firm. “If all you do is inform people that they need to improve their health, it’s not going to get any better.’’

Just ask Chris Boyce, chief executive of Framingham-based Virgin HealthMiles, a subsidiary of Britain’s Virgin Group.

The company sells corporate health-monitoring systems, such as pedometers and health kiosks where weight and blood pressure can be self-monitored. Usually, Virgin HealthMiles clients tie improvements to cash or other rewards - an incentive option now offered by 40 percent of large companies, according to Watson Wyatt.

The aim of the HealthMiles program is to “democratize’’ exercise, says Boyce, who often holds walking meetings with his staff on a track looping around the company offices.

“You don’t have to be a triathlete or hit the gym an hour a day,’’ says Boyce, who has lost 15 pounds since helping launch the company in the United States in 2006. “You can get your exercise however you want to.’’

Nearly 30 percent of previously inactive employees who participate in HealthMiles begin exercising at least a half-hour a day under the program, according to Boyce.

Easy opportunities to exercise, fresh foods, and understanding bosses all help create a health-centric workplace.

Naturally, sunshine and healthy workspaces help, too. Research shows that views of nature can help children focus, hospital patients heal, and workers boost productivity. The environment matters, indoors and out.

After NRG Systems Inc., a maker of wind measurement technology based in Hinesburg, Vt., moved into a green building in 2004, sick days fell and employees reported fewer allergies and colds.

The building, along with a second facility completed in 2008, features solar power, open spaces, and all-natural materials. On-site perks include a small swimming pool, workout room, wooded walking trails, and free healthy catered lunches four days a week.

The facilities were built both to be earth- and human-friendly, says chief executive and president Jan Blittersdorf. The starting point was, “how do we create great buildings that people will want to be in?’’ she says. “People lead full lives inside and outside of work. We want them to feel good about coming to work, enjoy their work, and do it well.’’

Maggie Jackson is the author of “Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age.’’ She can be reached at www.maggie-jackson.com.