Inspiring Employees to Live Healthier Lives

James Vance before and after his weight loss.

James Vance – before and after losing 230 pounds.

Workplace wellness trainer James Vance of West Virginia literally has walked the walk and encourages employers to help their employees do the same. Armed with motivation and the support of a worksite wellness program, he lost 230 pounds in 1½ years. He changed his diet, met regularly with a nutritionist, and weighed in and exercised at a gym five days a week.

Mr. Vance keeps a “before” photo of himself in his office as a reminder of what life was like at 430 pounds. A self-proclaimed couch potato, he spent most of his time sitting, eating pizza, doughnuts, and Chinese takeout, and watching the world from the sidelines. On the rare occasion when he went swimming, it meant standing in the pool.

“The picture of me sitting at the side of the pool was my ‘aha’ moment,” he recalled. “I thought I looked miserable and was unhappy with myself. I wanted to be able to get out in the world and enjoy it.” The accountability of weekly check-ins for the medical weight-loss program worked for him. His participation in CDC’s National Diabetes Prevention Program also motivated him to stay on track.

“I feel a lot better about myself,” said Mr. Vance, a senior program manager for the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources’ Division of Health Promotion and Chronic Disease and master trainer for CDC’s Work@Health program.

Worksite Wellness Programs Really Work

Larger belly before and smaller belly after.

Mr. Vance and 33 other Work@Health trainers across the United States help employees become healthier through their own worksite programs, whether in California, Montana, Texas, New York, Puerto Rico, or in between. He often receives e-mails from people who say hearing his story inspired them to join a walking program and lose weight. “I want to share with other employees that these worksite wellness programs are helpful,” said Mr. Vance. “They really do work!”

CDC’s Work@Health is an employer-based training program designed to improve organizational health. Employers receive a variety of benefits to help their employees, including:

  • A complete health and safety assessment of their organization to define needs and interests, along with the capacity to address those needs with appropriate activities and policies
  • Professional training on how to develop a worksite health intervention plan to meet employees’ needs
  • Technical assistance and community support resources to sustain the worksite health interventions
  • Careful monitoring of participants’ progress by professional worksite health trainers
  • Opportunities to expand their network by connecting with other employers and organizations that focus on health in their community
  • A safer and healthier work environment at the end of the program
  • Certification and recognition as a healthy worksite.

Work@Health can help employers reduce chronic diseases and risks among their workforce. For instance, Mr. Vance noted that West Virginia worksites have created policies to promote flextime for physical activity and availability of healthy foods at meetings and in break rooms. Other worksites have created on-site fitness centers, yoga rooms, and walking trails.

Walking with Ease

Compared to the rest of the United States, West Virginia has a high number of adults with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and overweight or obesity. To address this problem, Mr. Vance and the other Work@Health trainers he has mentored are helping more than 60 worksites across the state to set up new wellness programs or improve their existing ones. These range from schools and banks to hospitals and medical offices.

Spring Mills Primary School in Martinsburg is among their success stories. The school added Walk With Ease, a physical activity program developed by the Arthritis Foundation, to its employee worksite wellness program. Employees walk and do stretching and strengthening exercises for six weeks, gradually building up their endurance.

Spring Mills also received a $1,000 worksite wellness grant from the state to help staff members boost their water intake and monitor their blood pressure. Participants received hourly marked motivational water bottles to help them drink more. They met monthly and sampled bottled, filtered, and flavored water as further incentives for people who didn’t like the taste of plain water.

They also checked their blood pressure with a portable monitoring station Mr. Vance had secured for school employees. Three participants showed blood pressure that was dangerously high. They were checked daily and encouraged to visit their doctor. By taking steps to eat healthier and reduce their stress levels, all lowered their blood pressure to a controllable range.

Mr. Vance had seen on the school’s CDC Worksite Health ScoreCard that one of the needs was blood pressure monitoring. That made him reach out to provide the blood pressure station.

He also offered to use worksite wellness surplus grant money to fund a gravel oval walking track now enjoyed by Walk With Ease participants, classroom teachers, and physical education classes at Spring Mills.

Tracking data is important, according to Mr. Vance. Employers can use West Virginia Health Connection, a comprehensive website dedicated to connecting healthcare providers, patients, and workplaces to community wellness programs. They can log employee registration in different programs, participation, and progress.

With science-based workplace wellness programs, employers can control their healthcare costs while improving America’s overall health. Workplace health programs not only can improve workers’ health knowledge and skills, they also can promote healthy behaviors, like having regular health screenings, immunizations, and follow-up care. Creating a culture of healthier behaviors at work can also expand into other areas of employees’ lives.

Productivity losses related to personal and family health problems cost U.S. employers more than $225 billion every year. And the indirect costs of poor health—including absenteeism, disability, and reduced work output—are even higher. That’s why workplace health programs make good business sense. You can talk with your employer about creating healthy opportunities at your workplace.

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