A new study found that nearly all of about 400,000 employees at large companies nationwide face increased risk of heart disease and stroke from obesity, high blood pressure, poor diet and other risk factors.

The findings, published Tuesday in the journal Health Affairs, illustrate the need for more workplace health initiatives grounded in science and evidence to inspire employee health and reduce employer costs, study authors said.

“We Americans spend more than half of our waking hours at work. When they think about health, they don’t think of workplace as a place to get healthy,” said author Ron Goetzel, Ph.D., senior scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “There are a lot of things employers could be doing to encourage healthy habits in the workplace.”

In the study, employees at 20 large organizations completed voluntary health assessments. The names of the companies weren’t identified in the study, which found about 95 percent of employees had at least one of the seven major risks (high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood glucose, unhealthy weight, tobacco use, physical inactivity and poor diet) for heart disease and stroke.

Combined, those factors increase employer medical spending by more than 200 percent per person per year, Goetzel said. Heart disease and stroke cost the country about $316 billion a year in health expenses and lost productivity.

The study results came from the American Heart Association’s Workplace Health Achievement Index, which is designed to assess how organizations support their employees’ cardiovascular health.

“These initial index findings are vital because employers want to better understand how their overall employee health compares to that of their peers, and they seek insights on which programs can yield the greatest benefit,” said Chris Calitz, director of the AHA’s Center for Workplace Health Research and Evaluation and a co-author of the study.

“As we collect more data over time through AHA’s Index, this valuable insight will help inform the specific policies, programs and environmental factors that can best maintain and promote good heart health in the workplace,” Calitz said.

The survey found that employers with higher index scores had fewer employees with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, tobacco use and physical inactivity. Those employers also had workplace wellness programs and policies in place. But higher scores didn’t mean a lower prevalence of high blood sugar or unhealthy body mass index, Goetzel said.

Higher scores also equaled a higher per capita spending for cardiovascular disease, Goetzel said. Experts say workplaces could invest in wellness to improve employee health and save money down the road.

More and more employers are adopting health promotion programs that use science-based best practices, including one offered to companies by the AHA.

Successful programs are systematic in their design and based on evidence of effectiveness, not framed on fads or one-time activities, he said.

The Harvard Business Review identified a short list of what works in workplace wellness. Motivating employees to fit in a workout during the workday can give them more productive energy and drive better performance.

“It goes beyond flu shots,” Goetzel said. “A wellness program has to be integrated into the company with senior management support.”

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