Why Boss Should Care What You Eat, if You Exercise

Dr. Eric K. France, M.D., is chief of preventive medicine for Kaiser Permanente Colorado. He also co-chairs Denver’s “Living Streets Task Force,” a city initiative that takes into account all modes of transportation, not just automobiles, when considering roadway construction. 

“Our costs for health care are rising because of obesity and our sedentary lifestyles,” France said. “We need to make it easy to walk or bike to a neighborhood store or to work to incorporate activity into our routines.”

France recently sat down with FOXBusiness.com and answered questions about the relationship between a healthy workforce, health-care costs to employers and city planning.

FOXBusiness: Why exactly is it in an employer’s best interest to focus on having healthier employees?

France: It’s clear that employees who are overweight and sedentary will generate higher future costs for employers’ health plans.

Health-care cost is driven by claims. In the United States, about 7% of the workforce  does not smoke, is not obese, gets exercise most days of the week and eats a healthy diet.

Imagine an entire workforce of those people. For their employer, the long-term spending for their health care will be lower.

There should be a strong desire on the part of employers to keep their workforce healthy, to keep them, at minimum, from advancing into high-risk categories. As we age, there is a natural movement to more risk factors in a population over time.

FOXBusiness: What’s the connection between a healthier employee and a more productive employee?

France: A healthy workforce is a productive workforce. It’s in the employer’s interest that employees show up for work and are not absent - and when they are at work, that they work at their peak.

An unhealthy employee is absent more. And he or she may not really be present even if they show up for work. There is absenteeism and then there is what we call “presentee-ism,” when the employee is not fully engaged at work because he is not well. There is a lot of money lost because of this.

FOXBusiness: Can government help?

France: Policies and plans that cities and counties develop determine our health behaviors. How they build streets and parks and transit determine our ability to walk or bike to work, to shops, to schools. That in turn drives health care costs.

For some of the issues we face, we need to go upstream and look at policies and plans. Doctors can solve health problems in the clinic, but urban environments can encourage healthy behavior. People have to find that the easy thing for them to do is the healthy thing for them to do. People have to naturally include physical activity in their daily activity.

We have designed our cities to serve the automobile. That’s why we are 30 years into an obesity epidemic.

FOXBusiness: What works or doesn’t work for an employer interested in having a healthier workforce?

France: Employer groups consistently tell me they are challenged by getting employees engaged in health or health care. Create a wellness program, having a gym on site, using online programs to track steps with pedometers - the same 20% of employees participate, usually the healthier ones. The other 80% don’t participate.

There is a growing recognition that things like that are not working well. What is much more successful is creating real dollar incentives.

For instance, if a company’s health plan is $1,000 deductible, and the employer says: ‘If you participate in this wellness program, I’ll put $1,000 into your health spending account,’ the participation goes to 85%-90%. That’s when you see, four or five years down the line, an attenuation of health-care costs.

An employer can’t get there easily without strong dollar incentives.