Building a culture of health at any organization can be challenging, but developing a supportive workplace not only stunts escalating health care costs, positive tactics engage employees and guide them to make healthy decisions. A health director from Dow Chemical shared how leadership buy-in and individual accountability thrust her company toward a healthy culture in a webinar presentation yesterday by the Change Agent Workgroup (CAWG) and facilitated by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans.

"[The health outreach] has to be real," Dr Catherine Baase, global director of health services, The Dow Chemical Company, explained. She said that every initiative needs integrity. "If it's just words on a page, the program isn't delivering value to people."

Every culture of health must be fed from the bottom up, as well as the top down, which is why leadership buy-in is critical, said Baase.

 "Start building a business case by [presenting] information that is concrete and credible that illustrates the value proposition to the organization," she advised HR professionals looking to pitch a comprehensive health program to the executive team. Data on how such initiatives will retain employees and attract new talent goes a long way in solidifying leadership support, she said.

A vision of health "needs to be perceived as a priority business asset and has to be recognized as having a big and important impact on the ultimate success of the enterprise. It has to be viewed a critical to the strategy of the organization," said Baase.

However, not all organizations have defined a healthy culture in such strong corporate terms. Only 31% of respondents to Aon Hewitt’s 2012 Health Care Survey have active wellness councils or champion networks that meet regularly, with 13% adding such a group in 2012. This was the most popular health tactic present in over 1,800 individual employer-provided health benefits considered in the survey.

Further, only 27% have a domestic wellness policy and guiding principles (12% will add in 2012) and similarly, 27% have a visible senior and business unit leadership as champion of health (15% will add).

The last metric, leadership participation and encouragement, is integral to implanting a successful culture of health, said Baase. She explained how Dow Chemical has spurred leadership involvement by providing them with key messages and actions as events arise. She advised HR to give leaders specific actions and words for a particular activity.

Ultimately, the company needs to tie the health initiative to larger corporate goals and priorities to become a model of shared responsibility. Employers “need to engage people at all levels of the organization to drive a culture of health forward," Baase said.

She added that employers need to earn the trust of their employees to make sure they “are with us on our journey.” Health is a core part of Dow’s curriculum and is integral in leadership development and training.

Other elements Baase pointed to as part of a culture of health include comprehensive health programming, a food philosophy, a tobacco policy (such as their Substance Free Workplace Policy), support from leaders, persistence and good metrics to ensure success.

The payback from a healthy culture to the organization can be huge. Since introducing health risk assessments and health counseling in 2007, Dow has seen a 90% global participation for the health assessment and 95% of employees responded that the health assessment is a valuable service.

Looking to the future, Baase said Dow Chemical plans to expand initiatives to communities where they operate. The company also plans to increase use of tools such as social networking and technology to propel employee engagement.

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