Your Work Diet Is Killing You

For six years, Joe Perera worked as an accountant in Manhattan and spent long hours and late nights on the job. During tax season, when at his busiest, lunch was “pizza and cupcakes” and dinner was greasy, high-calorie fare ordered in from neighborhood restaurants and eaten hastily at his desk.

Then there was the snack room down the hall, with a never-ending supply of chips, sodas, and other junk food. He stopped going to the gym, put on 40 pounds, and began suffering from chronic migraines. “I was constantly exhausted,” reports Perera, 32. “I felt like my job was beating the hell out of me.”

These days, Perera’s story is far from unique. More than one-third of Americans are obese, a figure that has tripled in the past 50 years. In a 2011 “Stress in America” survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, concerns about money, work, and the economy topped the list of most frequently cited sources of stress.

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In today’s work environment—in which employees are being asked to cut costs, increase profits, and generally do more with less—many workers are grabbing fast-food lunches, eating quickly at their desks, or (even worse) skipping lunch altogether. In one recent survey of US employees conducted by Right Management, a workforce consulting firm, a third said they routinely eat lunch at their desks, and another third said they often skip lunch altogether. Other surveys have found that the average amount of time people take for lunch continues to shrink. In a 2006 poll, the length of a typical lunch was just 35 minutes, down from 42 minutes in a 2003 survey.

All that unhealthy eating is taking its toll on our nation’s economy—and on companies’ bottom lines. Experts say healthcare costs are rising about 10 percent per year, and an estimated 75 percent of healthcare expenses are attributable to preventable chronic diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes. One recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that healthcare costs for obese men are $1,171 higher a year, and obese women rack up an extra $3,696 a year in medical costs.

It’s no surprise, then, that more companies are aiming to improve the health of their workers by investing in employee wellness programs.

“With larger companies that are self-insured or whose claims impact their rates, every dollar saved is a dollar earned,” says Henry Petrie, president of Bedford-based MyHealth CoachNow Benefits Optimization, which designs and integrates corporate wellness programs. “So even in a tough economy, there’s some hard-dollar justification for investing in wellness.”  

Studies show that workplace wellness programs do, indeed, pay off. A 2010 study by researchers at Harvard’s School of Public Health found that for every dollar spent on workplace wellness programs, medical costs drop about $3.27. And a University of Michigan study of more than 23,000 General Motors employees revealed that when obese, sedentary employees began exercising at least twice a week, healthcare costs went down by an average of $450 per person per year.
Having a healthier workforce also reduces absenteeism, increases productivity, and improves morale, says Petrie, and “all of these things positively impact the bottom line.”

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“Over time, companies really see a return on their investment, because when they treat employees positively, it helps them in so many different way,” says Pat Min Cohen, a nutrition and wellness consultant who runs Nutritional Spirit, a nutrition consulting firm in Goldens Bridge that frequently works with employers. “It really enables the employees to thrive, to have more energy on the job, and to feel more valued and more important to the company. It’s not just about decreasing medical expenses.”

The Blum Center for Health in Rye Brook works with a number of Westchester-area companies on employee wellness programs, which range from “Learn @ Lunch” talks by health and nutrition experts to culinary programs in which executives learn about healthy eating and cook a meal together. One such company is Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Inc., which has been working with the Blum Center since July 2011, when it was based in White Plains. (Starwood relocated to Stamford, Connecticut, seven months ago.)

“We do culinary team-building events with their top executives,” says Bernadette Valcich, the Blum Center’s manager of corporate wellness and partner programs. “These are executives who need to travel frequently for their jobs, and our culinary classes are helping them to view food as medicine and to make the right choices when they’re eating away from home.

“Nothing we do here is a quick fix, and companies won’t see the results overnight,” Valcich adds, “but when businesses invest in these programs and stick with them, they will start to see improvements in the health of their employees over the long term.”

In some cases, companies have existing wellness resources that they’re already paying for, but aren’t using, says Petrie. “All the major healthcare carriers have a plethora of high-quality wellness services and information that are included in their premium. These can range from a twenty–four-hour nurse hotline and online health assessments to weight-loss, nutrition, and smoking-cessation programs,” he says. “These are great resources that are usually grossly underutilized.”

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Other “cost-neutral” ways to improve employee wellness are “changing out unhealthy vending machines for healthier ones, promoting all the available resources from their carriers, having a healthier menu in the cafeteria, or providing the space and promoting organized ‘participant-paid’ programs like onsite exercise or Zumba classes,” says Petrie. “These are all examples of how many companies are delivering wellness without taking on additional financial burdens.”

Some companies have chosen to ramp up their existing employee wellness programs to help their workers cope with their stressful lives. “When times get hard, we try to increase our employee wellness programs as opposed to reducing them,” says Leslie Ritter, wellness leader at Eileen Fisher in Irvington.

In addition to offering employees regular reflexology, meditation, and other health-related classes, Eileen Fisher also holds regular “learn and lunch” sessions, some of which are run by the Blum Center. Recent classes have included a talk by a nurse practitioner on the connections between stress and metabolism, and a series of talks by Marti Wolfson, culinary director of Nutrition@BlumKitchen at the Blum Center.

Reports Ritter, “Even though our company is eighty percent women, we’ve even had a bunch of guys from the IT department come to these classes. The next day, they made kale salad and brought it in for lunch!” Ritter says that, while the company doesn’t have concrete, measurable results of the benefits of their corporate wellness programs, “we do pay attention to the stress levels of our employees, and we can see that these nutrition and mind-body programs are really helping them to better manage the stress in their lives.”

Perhaps the biggest success story at Eileen Fisher is Perera, who five months ago became director of accounting and finance for the Eileen Fisher Community Foundation, a sister company also based in Irvington.

Today, Perera says he’s 20 pounds lighter, the headaches are gone, and lunch is usually either grilled chicken he’s brought from home or sushi from a neighborhood restaurant.

“At my other jobs, I felt like it always was all about the money. Nobody really cared about me as a person,” he says. “But here, I feel like Eileen really values us as people and wants us to thrive and be healthy.”

Get off your butt!

Advice from Henry Petrie, president of Bedford-based BenefitsOptimization, about getting healthy on the job:
“Having a busy schedule doesn’t mean you have to be a bonehead. So it’s a bad economy and times are hard and people are stretched. But it doesn’t mean you forget about wellness. If you can’t find time for the gym, then commit to always taking the stairs, or doing twenty sit-ups every morning. You can’t equate wellness to money or free time. If that were the case, the wealthiest countries would be the healthiest, and that just isn’t the case.
“Encourage your company to start a simple walking program,” Petrie suggests. “It’s free, it’s social, it’s healthy, and it’s fun. We have so much free electronic media available to us today, with Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, web portals, et cetera, so the means of connecting with the population and driving the process is all on your desktop.”
“No one can take better care of your health than you,” he continues. “And there will always be stress, heavy workloads, tough financial times, et cetera. Time marches on. We’re getting older and heavier every day. It’s better and a lot easier to face the music now before you put on five more pounds, and commit some period of time every day to do something about your health. It could be as simple as a twenty-minute walk in the morning or at lunch, or even learning about nutrition, exercise, or other ways to keep healthy. So exercise your body and your brain, eat right, and leave your cash in the bank.”

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