Can Better Workplace Leadership Solve America’s Health Care Problems?

The U.S. spends more on health care than any other country, yet we lag behind our peers. Could the answer to our health problems be at work?

Can Better Workplace Leadership Solve America’s Health Care Problems?
[Photo: Flickr user Morgan]

If the only thing breaking up your eight hours sitting at a desk are bathroom breaks and trips to the vending machine, you won’t be surprised at the new study showing the wellness failure of the American workplace.


Led by Dr. Katherine Tryon and Dr. Derek Yach from the Vitality Institute, the study is published in the November issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. The office, they found, is the weak link in American health care efforts. But it’s also one of the easiest to strengthen–and provides a unique platform for encouraging healthier habits.

The workplace provides a central setting for programs that encourage disease prevention and healthier lifestyles. The researchers write:

These programs could positively influence the health of 155 million working-age Americans while financially benefiting their employers by reducing health care costs, reducing sick time, and improving productivity.

Even though the U.S. spends more on health care than any other country, its life expectancy and disease survival rates aren’t improve at the same pace as peer countries. The report lists five reasons for this gap:

  1. Leadership fails to make health a priority
  2. Financial incentives don’t match up to disease prevention
  3. The quality of research is limited
  4. Regulation doesn’t support evidence-based practice
  5. Companies don’t form partnerships with their communities

We’re doing okay in smoking cessation, says Yach, but not as well in obesity and diet, and terribly on addressing mental health needs. How can leadership encourage a culture that values health?

Lead By Example

The issue is obviously complex–the American health care system can’t be fixed in a single initiative–but starting within your own company can help. Setting an example for employees, says Yach, can change the whole company’s health from the top down. The CEO can’t encourage employee wellness if she’s still smoking, getting insufficient sleep, and never finding time to exercise. Saying, “I know it’s tough, but let’s do this together” is the most immediate, effective change a leader can make.

Transparency And Accountability

Companies report on profit and loss, social and environmental impact, and employee diversity, but not on the health of their workforce–Yach wonders if this kind of transparency could change the future of health care.


About the author

Freelance tech, science and culture writer. Find Sam on the Internet: @samleecole.