As business leaders and government officials cope with surging health care costs, one global think tank is estimating that up to $303 billion can be saved through a healthier workforce should chronic disease prevention efforts in the workplace become the norm.

According to research from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the U.S. is spending about $2.7 trillion annually on health care, but these dollars are usually focused on treating disease and injury after they happen. The foundation says that seven out of 10 deaths in the U.S. are caused by chronic conditions such as heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes.

According to Derek Yach, executive director of the Vitality Institute, the research arm of wellness vendor Vitality Group, only 2% of corporate dollars spent on health care are for prevention and only 3% of federal dollars are directed to this cause.

“We need to start measuring and reporting health metrics on the employees in the same way we report on the financial status,” says Yach. “If we started reporting health metrics, we would know that effective health programs would be seen as investments in innovation, productivity and morale, not a cost item on the budget to be minimized.”

Also see: Large employers must avoid health benefit design myopia

Forty-five percent of Americans suffer from at least one chronic condition, the RWJF explains. 

“We have to do more to make the healthy decision [be] the easy decision,” says Alonzo Plough, RWJF’s vice president of research, evaluation and learning and chief science officer. Plough says that it’s essential to build a culture of health in communities.

For Johnson & Johnson, increasing the health and well-being of people is a strategic business goal. Dr. Mark Cunningham-Hill, director of the global solutions center and head of occupational medicine global health services at J&J, explains that the health care products company has been working to use wellness in the workplace to create a culture of health that, in turn, can offer a high return on investment.

“We do see health as an investment for our people rather than people and health as a cost,” Cunningham-Hill says. “We understand that healthy people are more productive people, and more successful – both at work and at home. We want our employees to be their best, not just for J&J but for their families and the communities they are in.”

At the workplace level, J&J takes a long-term approach to prevention and intervention, and also uses quantifiable data, to help corporate leaders understand the progress. Cunningham-Hill explains that the company is 20% less obese than its peer group, and all blood, cholesterol and stress levels are lower thanks in part to the company’s benefits offering in the wellness and health prevention space.

“You don’t just think one year, you’re probably not going to see a great response in that one year,” Cunningham-Hill states. “It enables us to measure that [program] over a period of time and you can actually demonstrate [results] moving forward.”

The Vitality Institute recommends that health metrics, the same used by J&J, be incorporated into corporate reporting so that health can become measureable.

Laurie Bassi, CEO of McBassi & Company, a consulting firm that uses behavioral economics to help companies improve their organizational effectiveness, agrees that corporations have to treat employee human capital as a core value.

“As adults, we spend the majority of our waking lives in workplaces,” she says. “And they are all too often the problem rather than the solution. So while CEOs are fond of saying that ‘people are our most important asset,’ they are, of course, measured and recorded as a cost.”

Meanwhile, she says that changing this fundamental problem will lead to benefits in employee productivity and possibly even higher stock prices. 

“Firms that are people-oriented, people-centric, that consistently invest in the productivity and well-being of their workforce consistently outperform their competitors who make fewer investments,” Bassi notes.

The Affordable Care Act’s provisions also lay out measures to improve prevention. But, the economic success of the U.S. is linked to a healthy American workforce, according to the Vitality Institute report.

Also see: Health costs pushing U.S. economy ‘off the cliff’: NBCH CEO

“There’s so much more to the ACA, we think the prevention component will be one of the gems that will have a real impact,” Yach explains.

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