How do you cultivate a healthy workplace?

FORBES | MELISSA THOMPSON | Why healthy workplaces are good for business.

Entrepreneurs, whether in the early stages of startup or driving the ongoing momentum of longer term growth, know that one important factor for success is true – keeping employees’ spark alive so they can be healthy and engaged in the often high-pressure workplace. Businesses that can maintain a healthy workplace in a consistent and sustainable manner, often avoid burnout of staff and support people that grow great companies.

The transformation from junk food to health food:

While many entrepreneurs today believe in helping to create healthy work environments for employees, this was not always the case. In the early to mid-2000’s, the obesity epidemic became a national concern as obesity rates among U.S. adults rose to 35.7 percent in 2010 – up from 30.5 percent in 2000. Larger companies started to realize their impact on the issue and stepped in to take proactive measures to keep their employees active and healthy. Beyond the socially responsible reasons for wanting to help employees make better lifestyle decisions, organizations that provided health insurance recognized that managing health care costs meant helping employees manage factors like blood pressure, heart disease and other chronic conditions.

Smoking cessation programs along with healthy eating and exercise opportunities were established to create environments in which companies helped individuals develop behavior changes that improved health and reduced health care costs. But workplace wellness programs were in a transformation. Chris Mittelstaedt, Founder and CEO of The FruitGuys, a company that delivers wellness to workplaces across America through boxes of farm-fresh fruit in an effort to replace break room junk food and promote healthy snacking, remembers being part of the 21st century change of worksite wellness initiatives.

“The late 90’s and early 2000’s was a wild time for employee wellness,” says Mittelstaedt. “In 1998, our concept of delivering fresh fruit to offices as a healthy snack was just getting off the ground and corporate executives thought it was pretty radical. At the time, the landscape for what was healthy at work was vastly different than what it is today.”

Mittelstaedt says he remembers people drinking cans of Jolt Cola and eating chocolate- covered espresso beans just to get through the long days and nights. People were fueling themselves with anything that was convenient, he says.

“Keeping people at work – regardless of the consequences to their bodies – was a real part of the approach at the time. That’s when we thought we’d make fruit at work in the break room something that was easy for folks to grab and healthy for the body.”

Mittelstaedt believes the first dot com wave that started in the San Francisco Bay Area was the beginning of a shift towards transforming workplace health. I talked to HR expert and founder of Deputy Steve Shelley about his thoughts on the early dot com wave. “Back then, workplace wellness programs were often focused on OSHA issues around avoiding workplace injury or helping people stop smoking,” Shelley noted. “It was really the obesity epidemic that helped companies realize their employees were getting sick because of their lifestyle and it was actually in the company’s best interest to create a work environment that not only kept morale and energy high, but also allowed employees to be healthier people.”

And the survey says...

Nearly 20 years later, employers and employees better understand the direct correlation between what they put in their bodies and the impact it has on their work performance. A recent study from The British Journal of Health Psychology examined the extent to which food affects day-today experiences and found that the more fruits and vegetables people consumed (up to seven portions), the happier, more engaged and more creative they tend to be.

The reason? Fruits and vegetables contain vital nutrients that foster the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in the experience of curiosity, motivation and engagement. They also provide antioxidants that minimize bodily inflammation, improve memory and enhance mood.

Today, instead of offering cans of soda and chocolate-covered espresso beans to fuel employees during long, demanding work days, employers are now looking to healthier options such as fruit, veggie snacks and flavored water to add to their workplace wellness programs. Dr. Stuart Froum, a Manhattan dental implant specialist, recommends replacing sugary soft drinks for more nutritious alternatives like fruits and vegetables. “Fruits have more health benefits than just increasing energy, they also contain vitamins and minerals that are beneficial to your overall health including your teeth.” Sugary soft drinks also encourage the formation of plaque (or biofilm) which is the main cause of cavities, gum disease and peri-implantitis (gum and bone loss around implants).

Paul Chapuis, Founder and CEO of OnQ, a leading manufacturer of in-store retail displays, receives FruitGuys fruit every week for the company. He notes that OnQ’s encouragement of healthy habits is a key factor in employee health, productivity and retention.

“OnQ is an employee-centric company. We stock our break room with fruit and healthy snacks, and provide healthy lunches on a weekly basis,” said Chapuis. “Our business is broad in terms of what employees do. Whether the work is creative, quantitative or physical, we find that providing healthy options at OnQ keeps people happy and healthy.”

The next phase of workplace wellness

Workplace wellness has taken on deeper meaning under both the Affordable Care Act and now under the Republican-proposed changes to the health care system. In an early proposal of the American Health Care Act, companies could impose large penalties on employees who decline to participate in genetic testing as part of workplace wellness programs. Under the new bill, employers would be allowed to enact penalties of up to 30 percent of the total cost of the employee’s health insurance on those who choose to keep genetic information private.

Among the almost 70 groups who oppose the bill, including AARP, American Society of Human Genetics, March of Dimes and The Obesity Society, site that if signed, the bill would undermine the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which were both put in place to protect the privacy of people’s genetic makeup. The groups also argue that workplace wellness programs are capable of encouraging healthy behaviors within the current legal framework.

“Worksite wellness programs should be about the behaviors that individuals can affect through their daily decisions and the environments companies create to support those healthy choices,” said Mittelstaedt. “Policy makers want to transform worksite wellness into health screening programs, which escalates into a grey area where the definition of an individual choosing to take healthy actions is confused with the make-up of an individual’s health profile.”

I talked quickly to Dave Barnes - CEO of Gym And Fitness about workplace wellness. I’ll leave you with his thoughts to wrap up. He told me, “A healthy environment is essential. We have implemented things such as 3PM team workouts, walking meetings, adjustable standing desks and regular healthy team lunches together. This is great for team morale and shows we genuinely value their health and well-being.”