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Employers can do more to improve workers’ health, cut health care costs


The average American spends more than 2,000 hours a year at work, and over a lifetime can accumulate 86,000 to 100,000 working hours.

And yet when I speak with my patients about improving their health, these hours are often off limits to talk about.

There are notable exceptions, though. For my patients who are in the military, work as military contractors or at Dahlgren or Quantico, we can talk about the hour they often are given—in addition to a lunch break—to use the gym or go for a run. My patients refer to this as “PT” time—physical training.

Time spent exercising, as a break to the workday, is encouraged and largely expected for our armed forces.

The military provides health coverage to 9.6 million Americans and spends more than $50 billion a year on health care. Much of our country’s research about how to prevent sudden cardiac death comes from military researcher and doctors, a sign of how seriously the military takes health.

For fiscal purposes, and for the health of our brave volunteer military personnel, the Pentagon has immense incentives to keep soldiers and veterans healthy. Many active duty and recently retired military personnel who are now contracting for the military enjoy taking an hour out of the workday to run or hit the gym.

The military knows that by allowing this, it saves hundreds of millions of dollars in spending on diabetes, heart disease, depression and other common American conditions because exercise helps prevent them all. And soldiers are happier and more productive because of that time spent exercising.

It’s easy to think of the military not as an employer, but a cultural institution. Of course soldiers need to be healthy in order to defend our nation. But what about other employers?


Safeway is a grocery store chain with close to 200,000 employees nationwide. The CEO of Safeway, Steve Burd, noticed that his company was spending $2 billion a year on health costs in the early 2000s.

He realized that this single expenditure was making his company less competitive, but also realized that almost 70 percent of that spending went to diseases that could be prevented or improved through lifestyle changes. He decided it was time for a change.

He built a world-class gym at corporate headquarters. He hired chefs who would cook healthy meals and post calorie counts in the corporate cafeteria.

And he provided his employees with discounts on their shared health expenses. Can you quit smoking? You get a discount on your health insurance premiums. Reduce your weight if you are obese? Discount. Control your blood pressure? Discount. Control your cholesterol? Discount.

These changes in how he decided to better treat his employees—to facilitate healthier behaviors—allowed for innumerable success stories of happy and healthy employees.

As a result, the company has been a leader in America for controlling health costs and becoming more profitable—all through helping its workforce be healthier.


But you don’t have to be the military with 9.6 million people, or Safeway with 200,000 employees, to focus on workplace wellness.

The CEO of a smaller company, Serigraph, also has been a revolutionary in this needed movement. Serigraph employs 1,200 employees and manufactures car parts. Its CEO also built an on-site fitness center and walking paths around the corporate campus, and he also provided incentives for his employees to lead healthier lives and share in the cost savings.

To learn more about Serigraph, pick up a copy of the book “The Company That Solved Health Care.” The ideas in the book and film can be used for your workplace.

For still more information about how to use some of those 2,000 on-the-job hours a year to improve health, watch the documentary “Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare.” Among other things, it features Safeway’s efforts to improve employee health and cut costs.

If your company is small, maybe partner with a gym to offer discounts on membership, or encourage employees to take walking or jogging breaks together during the workday. If you give your employees an hour break for exercise, your employees will be more productive, they will have lower health care costs and they will be more effective in their jobs.

Employees can partner with co-workers to motivate each other to avoid fast food at lunch time and choose something healthy. Also, ask your employer if your costs of quitting smoking can be shared.

I’m a consultant to the Fredericksburg Police Department, and I am thrilled that Chief Dave Nye’s department helps share the costs of his employees’ efforts to quit smoking. The department also has an on-site gym and incentivizes participation in an exercise program called LawFit by offering more paid vacation time if employees participate.

With half of all Americans heading toward being diabetic—and with 70 percent of all of our health care costs being spent on diseases that could be controlled or prevented if we just quit smoking, exercised and ate healthier—it’s wonderful to see some employers encouraging wellness in the places where we spend 100,000 hours of

our lives.

Dr. Christopher Lillis is an internist with Chancellor  Internal Medicine in Fredericksburg. He can be reached