The Employee-Health Quandary

New data indicates the health of Americans is declining. Why firms need to pay attention.

Employees (and yes, their valiant leaders) begin the New Year wanting to get healthier—to eat less sugar, do more yoga, and squeeze in the occasional doctor’s visit. Those resolutions may be more urgently needed than ever: According to a new Gallup poll, Americans are even unhealthier than they were just before the pandemic. Nearly 14% are diabetic, and 38% are obese, up 6% from 2019. Eating habits have also worsened, while exercise habits remain consistent with 2019 levels.

Experts say that firms need to pay attention. Not only does this data foretell rising healthcare costs, but “healthy employees are engaged, effective employees,” says Ronald Seifert, leader of the North America Workforce Reward and Benefits practice at Korn Ferry. “Productivity and cost are handcuffed together.”

The failing health of Americans is a complex social phenomenon. Experts say that too many firms take a narrow view of the problem—that they simply look at details like costs, absenteeism, and common ailments, then provide solutions like access to healthy workday food options, physical activity, and education programs around health. “Others embrace the broad opportunities that a healthier workplace can create,” says engagement expert Mark Royal, senior client partner at Korn Ferry. For example, a company known for health might be seen as both a compelling employer and a vital brand.

Organizations are powerful drivers of employee well-being, but the best efforts fail when jobs inherently promote poor health by imposing long hours, stress, and sedentariness, says Maria Amato, senior client partner in the Organizational Strategy practice at Korn Ferry. Surveys will help leaders understand employees’ needs, she says, but managers themselves can really move the needle. “Allow employees the flexibility to take care of what they need to do in their lives,” says Amato. That can include designating downtime and stretch breaks, as well as not scheduling meetings during school-pickup times. “Make sure there’s not a ‘hero’ culture of rewarding unhealthy behaviors,” says Amato

The key to transforming unhealthy behaviors into healthier ones, says Seifert, is motivation—ideally financial: “You want to incentivize employees to care for themselves and know their numbers”—meaning cholesterol, blood pressure, weight, and other relevant health statistics. He says this is best accomplished through cash incentives, such as lowering the cost of health-insurance premiums for employees who complete annual wellness exams. Companies can also encourage physical activity in softer ways, such as offering low-cost gym memberships or hosting groups that are training for events like Walk for the Cure. Seifert emphasizes that money talks, however. “They’ll be most driven to do things that put money back in their pockets,” he says. 


Learn more about Korn Ferry’s Total Rewards capabilities.