Why companies need to develop a “culture of health.”


Michael Parkinson, M.D., is the senior medical director for Health and Productivity for UPMC Health Plan and UPMC WorkPartners, which are both part of the UPMC Insurance Services Division. The UPMC Insurance Services Division offers a full range of insurance programs and products and also includes: UPMC for Life, UPMC for You, UPMC for Kids, Community Care Behavioral Health, LifeSolutions, EBenefit Solutions, and Askesis Development Group.

In the workplace, the concepts of health protection and health promotion have long existed side by side. The former places primary focus on worker safety, the latter on worker health.

What’s become evident in recent years is that making a distinction between health protection and health promotion is not the best way to optimize either. Companies improve their employee and financial performance when the two perspectives are aligned. To develop a true “culture of health,” a company must integrate employee safety and employee health. Keeping employees healthy is essentially the same thing as keeping them safe.

Understanding Health Protection
Health protection traditionally encompasses all aspects of on-the-job worker safety. In recent decades in the United States, through the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), added emphasis has been placed on understanding ways to make the workplace safer.

OSHA-reported worker deaths have dropped from 38 per day in 1970 to 12 per day in 2012. Through increased use of risk assessment, safety training, improved protective equipment, better mechanical safety engineering and other factors, worker safety has definitely improved. However, the underlying health status and behaviors of the workers themselves has been overlooked.

Understanding Health Promotion
Health promotion is an umbrella term for workplace wellness programs, which can assume various forms. Employers introduced worksite health promotion programs to keep employees healthier and to reduce healthcare and productivity related costs. These could include health risk appraisals (HRAs), biometric screenings, employee events such as weight races, the introduction of onsite health coaching, and smoking cessation assistance or weight-loss programs.

Health promotion efforts continue to grow among all-sized employers. Large employer health promotion strategies may include onsite clinics, pharmacies and fitness centers, which can be used to promote healthy behaviors and also to treat common illnesses and to better engage employees (and even dependents) in common chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension.

A `Total’ Approach
NIOSH created the national Total Worker Health™ initiative to assist employers in combining their “safety” emphasis (traditionally very prominent in the consciousness of any company’s leadership and management) with their health promotion efforts (historically underappreciated as a contributor to safety and company overall performance).

According to a study by the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, “a growing body of evidence” indicates that there are significant benefits when health and safety policies, practices and programs are integrated within a workplace. Healthier employees are safer employees and vice versa — and both contribute to the bottom-line effectiveness and success of the organization.

When wellness programs emphasize correcting workplace hazards, they are likely to get greater acceptance. For example, poor dietary habits, lack of physical activity and obesity all contribute to mental errors at work, higher rates of musculoskeletal disease and disability and workplace safety risks. Healthy behaviors are every bit as relevant to corporate success as a safety harness for job-specific risks.

Keys for Success for an Integrated Program
Leadership and management should realize — and clearly state in specific terms within their business — how poor health impacts workplace safety and job performance. Engaging teams of employees to identify practical actions to improve health and safety should be solicited. Obtaining the active engagement of management once some actions have been identified is critical.

Worker health cannot be addressed solely by reducing workplace hazards (“safety”) nor does it make sense to make individual health paramount (“wellness”) and ignore how work-related demands, stressors and conditions contribute to poor health. A Total Worker Health™ perspective will be required to make our companies and our employees the highest-performing and most successful they both can be.

To learn how customized, integrated solutions can help your organization, contact David White, a Sales and Business Development Executive for UPMC WorkPartners at