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How employee assistance programs can build a 'culture of health'

October 5, 2011
by Edward R. Jones, PhD, and Richard F. Paul, MSW, CEAP
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EAPs can build and sustain a healthier, happier, more engaged workforce

Just as they played an integral role in helping to create workplace cultures of safety, drug-free workplaces, and workplace cultures free of sexual harassment, employee assistance programs (EAPs) can help organizations achieve and sustain a culture of health.

Edward r. jones, phd

Edward R. Jones, PhD

Richard f. paul, msw, ceap

Richard F. Paul, MSW, CEAP

A culture of health addresses the “whole person” and refers to the complex web of social influences that nurture individuals to achieve complete physical, mental and social well-being. In the work environment, these influences include norms, peer support and shared values, as well as work policies, procedures and programs.

This approach embodies a sense of individual and group responsibility toward achieving and maintaining good health. It acknowledges that individuals need a supportive culture in order to be successful-at work, at home or in their community.

As experts in understanding workplace behavior, employee assistance professionals know that lifestyle changes are difficult to achieve and sustain. Studies have suggested that 80 percent of individuals undertake a major lifestyle change each year, yet only 10 percent to 20 percent are even partially successful. That failure is due to factors such as stress, a lack of social support or poorly defined goals. A culture of health significantly increases the number of successes.

Employee assistance professionals have also long known that the workplace can be a highly influential force in helping to shape, support and encourage healthy behaviors. Within a culture of health, employees find it easier to make healthy choices. New health behaviors are more likely to be sustained for a lifetime. Program results are magnified as participation and outcomes improve.

A strategic advantage for the organization

Astute business leaders recognize that health (vs. just healthcare) is a worthy investment of resources, and will pay back in reduced healthcare costs, greater employee morale, greater productivity and engagement, less absenteeism and the like.

A culture of health reaches all employees and extends well beyond having healthy foods in cafeterias or physical activity challenges. A true culture of health is a population health management strategy that promotes good health for all-the sick and the well. By keeping the healthy healthy, as well as tending to the ill in a timely and appropriate manner, a company has an opportunity to arrest rising healthcare costs.

While the economic benefits of traditional health promotion programs are substantial, these benefits dramatically increase within the supportive environment that a culture of health provides.

When the culture becomes part of the environment, lifestyle change is more successful and employees are less likely to add risks to their health profiles. People are brought together with a sense of community, shared vision and positive outlook. It also engenders mutual respect and stimulates teamwork, creativity, innovation and enthusiasm.

Why EAP as cultural change agent?

EAP and work/life programs can be leveraged to support efforts to create a culture of health in much the same way that they have been used to promote other positives: a culture of safety, a drug-free workplace, a family-friendly workplace with flexible work schedules and parent-friendly programs.

Why? Because EAP and work/life programs tend to be available to all employees and their family members, and they operate at all levels of the organization. They foster relationships throughout an organization, relationships that acknowledge the organization's history, demographics, health needs and culture. This acknowledgement is vital to ongoing support and promotion of a culture of health by organizational leaders and front-line managers.

EAPs are credited with recognizing that early intervention and prevention of alcohol and substance abuse issues could have a direct impact on an employer's bottom line. A good EAP is one that focuses not just on the needs of the employees but is a strategic partner to the organization in helping support its business objectives. While there are numerous activities and programs that make up an organizational approach to building a culture of health, the EAP can be instrumental in the following key areas:

  • strategy design
  • policy development
  • training of employees and managers on topics that support a healthy workplace culture
  • outcomes program design and measurement
  • ongoing program promotion and visibility campaigns
  • supporting key organizational messages around a culture of health in their work with employees and managers accessing or requesting EAP assistance
  • expanding the more traditional perception of EAP to include life services such as health coaching and health advocacy

Building on an organization's strengths, the EAP can help organizational leaders develop and sustain a shared vision that promotes health and productivity across the organization. EAPs offer expertise and support for behavioral changes at the individual, supervisory, and organizational levels.

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