UW News

April 29, 2010

The Health Promotion Research Center: Making a difference in workers’ health

Hearing the word health research probably brings to mind white-coated workers doing mysterious things with lab equipment, with any benefits to the public years down the line.

But when Dr. Jeff Harris talks about research at the UW’s Health Promotion Research Center (HPRC), he’s talking about something quite different. Harris is director of HPRC and a professor in the School of Public Health Department of Health Services, HPRC’s home department.

“We know what behaviors help people stay healthy — stop smoking, lose weight, be active, get your health screenings,” Harris said. “But we’re still figuring out how to get people to actually do those health-producing behaviors” In other words, how do you get people up and exercising — or going for that colonoscopy?

HPRC’s “lab” is the workplace, and its research focus is dissemination of the practical steps that employers can take to help their workers be healthier. “We work with employers because we want to reach as many people as we can, and most adults go to work every day.” Harris said. HPRC studies how to get employers to do what works in health promotion for their workers.

But why would worker health matter to an employer? Because workers’ health affects labor costs, through higher health premiums, lower productivity, missed work by sick employees, and higher turnover.

Researchers estimate that employers save about $3.27 on medical costs for every dollar they spend on workplace health programs.

HPRC, which is funded primarily by the Prevention Research Centers program of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has worked with local and national employers as well as government agencies, such as Snohomish County and Washington State Department of Health.

Closer to home, HPRC has also worked with the state Public Employees Benefits Board (PEBB), which directly affects UW faculty and staff. The PEBB manages health insurance coverage at the UW.

One important way employers can address workers’ health is through health benefits. “Most people’s health insurance comes through their jobs,” Harris said, “and one step employers can take is getting their benefits to promote preventive behaviors.”

Harris and his colleagues met with PEBB administrators to discuss the importance of covering preventive benefits, including health insurance, to improve health and ultimately cut insurance costs. Thanks to those discussions, UW staff and faculty now get insurance coverage for help in quitting smoking as well as discounted memberships at participating fitness centers around the state. (UW staff and faculty can find a list of participating sports clubs on the UW Human Resources Wellness website.)

The American Cancer Society is one of HPRC’s main partners in promoting workplace wellness. ACS does cancer-related research and also offers education, patient services, and advocacy.

“We work with HPRC on workplace wellness,” said Thom Murray, account director for ACS’s Great West Division, “because reducing tobacco use, improving nutrition and increasing physical activity and cancer screening not only affect chronic diseases, they also help prevent cancer.”

HPRC started working with ACS in 2001 to develop and test what has become a key ACS product, Workplace Solutions. This package of 15 best practices for improving worker health includes benefit design (such as covering smoking cessation treatments), policy changes (ensuring healthy food in vending machines and lunch rooms), and programs (lunch-time walking groups).

ACS estimates that it has provided Workplace Solutions to more than 1,200 companies employing more than 2 million workers across the nation.

“Those numbers really show the value of working with ACS,” said Peggy Hannon, an HPRC investigator who has worked on a number of Workplace Solutions evaluation studies. “As an academic research center, we could never have reached that many workers.”

Those numbers also demonstrate the importance of the partnership for ACS. “Our work has been validated by HPRC investigators’ research,” Murray said. “They’ve really added credibility to the work we do with employers.”

As part of its research, HPRC collaborates with ACS on conducting workplace assessments. In a typical assessment, HPRC and ACS workplace specialists start by reviewing the company’s health promotion activities and data on workers’ health behaviors, looking for gaps and opportunities for improvement.

They interview human resources staff, review benefits covered by the company’s health insurance plan, and scrutinize company health policy documents.

Finally, they compare the assessment results against the best practices outlined in Workplace Solutions and deliver a report that recommends actions the company can take to enhance its worksite health promotion.

Snohomish County, for example, has had a health promotion program in place since 2006. When Rebecca Olin, the Human Resources benefits analyst at the county, heard Harris speak at a Transforming Healthcare Summit last October, she realized the county could do even more to help workers stay healthy.

Olin enlisted Harris and the ACS to do a comprehensive evaluation of the county’s wellness program. “They recommended that we focus on smoking cessation and on creating a culture of movement in the workplace,” Olin said.

Since then, she and her coworkers have been researching how to add a smoking cessation quitline and a copay waiver for preventive care, such as mammography, pap smears, and colonoscopies. About half of Snohomish County’s 2,700 workers, from office staff to road crews, participate in the county’s wellness activities. One solution won’t fit all of them.

The county has started with two exercise programs: 10,000 Steps, which is an individual program to encourage people to walk the equivalent of five miles a day, and Active for Life, an ACS group challenge program to increase physical activity.

Snohomish County views its worker wellness program as a long-term, two-pronged strategy to support the health and well-being of workers and to curtail the rising cost of health insurance. “We expect that if employees are healthier, that will reflect on the county’s cost of medical insurance premiums,” Olin said.

The relationship between health promotion and reduced costs is a compelling argument for employers. But for Harris and his HPRC colleagues, seeing their research results turn into improved worker health is what makes their research count.

“The great thing about doing this work,” Harris said, is seeing our research change the way businesses manage their workplace environments and, through that, helping millions of workers lead healthier lives.”