Silicon Valley is known for its technological innovation, from new apps to driverless cars. But the area is also poised for a possible breakthrough in workplace health, as companies try to tackle chronic health problems and get their employees up and out of their chairs.
The American Heart Association has been leading the charge to get companies to adopt a Comprehensive Workplace Wellness Program, which is designed to reduce employee stress and inactivity, and encourage better eating habits.
This year, the association recognized El Camino Hospital and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, along with businesses all over the country, for going above and beyond to promote healthy activities and bring down workplace stress levels.
Companies are uniquely positioned to pull off a big health initiative because 155 million adults in the United States work, either full time or a significant portion of the week, creating a "large captive population" who could benefit from the health initiatives, according to a report by the association.
Laura Putnam, a local workplace-health expert who leads a consulting firm called Motion Infusion, said there's a real cultural and biological mismatch going on in the American work place. Humans are designed to be active and moving around, she said, but many are stuck in a chair behind a desk all day.
"We're biologically programmed not to sit in front of a computer all day. The question is, how do we close that gap?" Putnam said.
Traditionally, company wellness programs range from on-site screening for blood pressure and cholesterol to physical activity programs and discounts on gym memberships. Putnam said studies on the success of these programs are inconclusive, and workplace incentives don't necessarily help people develop the self-motivation needed to adopt healthier lifestyles.
Putnam authored a book called "Workplace Wellness that Works," examining what kind of health initiatives work and what kind fall flat. She found that often the short-term rewards and incentives -- the gym discounts and the tests -- don't do a whole lot in isolation. Of the companies that have launched wellness programs, fewer than 20 percent of the employees participate, she said.
While the Bay Area is full of tech jobs and more than its fair share of employees camped in front of computers all day, it could be the epicenter for healthy work initiatives, Putnam said.
"It's exciting to be here. There's a lot of consciousness to wellness and trying to find creative ways to bring it to the workplace," she said. "Especially with millennials coming in (to the workforce), there's a higher expectation from companies."
Comprehensive wellness plans are going to look wildly different from one company to another, but Putnam said the key is to have a long-term, cultural change at the company that encourages people to eat more healthfully and move around more. She said investing in the "intangible" and encouraging employees to have fun on the job and take longer breaks can pay off in more workforce productivity.
Rather than focus on individual employees, Putnam advocates for changing the entire workplace culture and steering clear of initiatives that focus on how stressed, sedentary and overweight employees are. Changing the workplace culture can involve little things, such as encouraging longer lunch breaks and designating days for employees to volunteer in the community, but it's a necessary step for improving health.
"I've seen over and over again where a company may even be investing in all these mindfulness programs, but meanwhile the culture and the environment just sucks," Putnam said.
There is a real incentive for companies to get these health initiatives right, as they stand to save money in the long run if they succeed. A 2012 study found more than a fifth of company health care costs are poured into employees with "modifiable" risk factors -- such as obesity and inactivity -- each year. That means up to 20 percent of the average $3,534 spent per employee on health care could be shaved off company costs if those firms could find a way to improve overall workplace health.
Companies can also get a lot of bang for their buck on wellness initiatives, and not just because of reductions in health care costs. Putnam said research overwhelmingly shows that workplace wellness can boost morale, teamwork and retention of employees. But only if it's done right, she said.
A healthy hospital environment
It seems fitting then that some of the leading healthy workplace environments in the Bay Area are at hospitals. El Camino Hospital recently received two awards from the American Heart Association for meeting a myriad of workplace wellness criteria, as well as trying out a few innovative ideas for reducing the stress of nurses and staff.
Hospitals are hardly a cozy working environment, with the long hours and night shifts. El Camino has spent the last few years focusing on wellness initiatives for employees to eat more healthily, exercise and manage stress throughout the work day, according to Alyse Manglik, interim manager of employee wellness and health services at the hospital.
Hospital staff are encouraged to take breaks whenever they can, to walk around the hospital on quarter-mile routes that have been mapped out to pass some of the hospital's more prominent art exhibits. There's also a number of so-called energizer stations -- green exercise machines called ski walkers and tai chi spinners that employees can hop onto for a quick boost of energy, Manglik said. Not enough to get a full cardio workout and break a sweat, but enough to keep employees feeling productive until the end of the day.
"Even if it's just a 15 minute break, you can use it to get a bit of energy," Manglik said.
The American Heart Association recognized El Camino Hospital this year as a Platinum-level Fit-Friendly work site, not only for encouraging exercise, but for promoting healthy eating on the hospital campus. The hospital recently dumped all of the candy and sugary drinks from the vending machines, and the employee cafeteria has a rotation of "ideal" meals that carefully balance calorie counts.
The hospital was also one of fewer than 40 organizations in the U.S. to receive the Worksite Innovation award for getting creative with employee wellness strategies. The hospital has three massage therapists who roam the hospital, dropping in throughout the day to give massages to just about any employee who's interested.
Lisa Wong, a massage therapist for the hospital, spent the later half of the afternoon on Monday in the Women's Hospital going down a list of staff in need of a massage. As a former software engineer who knew first-hand what it's like to take on 10 to 12-hour workdays, Wong said she knows where some of the employees are coming from when she drops by. And it's always a pleasant surprise for the employees, because the roving massage therapists never announce ahead of time when they're on the way.
"We don't tell people what time we're coming," Wong said. "It's exciting and feels like a nice treat."
While the hospital is measuring how successful the health initiatives have been so far with health risk assessments and biometric screenings, Manglik said just simple observations -- like lines outside energizer stations and more people spending lunch breaks walking outside at Cuesta Park-- already show a positive shift in behaviors.
"I've seen more people at the park (lately)," Manglik said. "We've raised awareness and helped to build that culture."
Stanford Hospital and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital have likewise spent the last four years promoting workplace wellness through the Healthy Steps Wellness Program, a joint effort between both hospitals to improve employee health. In the program, employees can apply for small, $500 grants to implement their own healthy initiatives or programs, according to Patty Purpur de Vries, manager of the program.
And it's proved popular. So far the grant application program has received 200 applications, Purpur de Vries, with a wide range of different ideas proposed by hospital staff. One physician, she said, put in an application to help her employees improve their practical self-care strategies, while another group of employees wanted to launch a walking challenge.
Beyond grant money, employees are also given a $300 to $600 incentive to check cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure, height and weight. Purpur de Vries said getting employees to do these kinds of check-up biometrics tests can be challenging, so it's key to keep the testing period to between 10 and 15 minutes.
"Often times that's the hardest part of the wellness program, getting employees to come in and get those things done," she said. "You've got patients waiting (and) you've got people who just don't feel like they have the time."
While the hospital has successfully gotten 70 percent of employees to keep up with the health screenings, it's not the focus of the program, Purpur de Vries said. During team-building exercises, she said, they don't even mention biometrics and focus on thinking positively, and tips on breathing and exercise.
Above all, she said, it's about creating a group culture based around healthy lifestyle choices, and that shift in group thinking is way more important to focus on than return on investment.
"People can't be healthy in isolation when they work in groups that don't do the same, or bring in donuts every week," she said. "In my world, it's about helping engagement and helping the hospital (meet) their long-term goal of patient and employee satisfaction, and that does not come from taking biometrics and telling people to lose weight."