No loss, no gain with design change

No single answer to worker health

Keeping employees from gaining weight is a major challenge in any workplace, but a new study shows that in fact, very simple workplace design changes can help stave off weight gain.1 However, these interventions by themselves aren't likely to lead to weight loss.

Changes were made at several of The Dow Chemical Company's worksites, such as making healthy options accessible, encouraging employees to take the stairs, increasing leadership engagement and establishing workgroup ambassadors. The company also implemented a low-intensity individual weight-management program, with 60% of workers participating and 13.5% reducing weight by 5% or more.

"It is our experience, and is generally supported by the research literature, that environmental modifications provide a good support for behavior change, but don't necessarily generate a lot of change by themselves," says Mark G. Wilson, HSD, one of the study's authors and director of the Workplace Health Group at the University of Georgia's College of Public Health.

An employee is likely to choose healthy options provided in the company cafeteria if he or she is already being careful about what they eat, in other words, but those same healthy items won't necessarily get someone who is not predisposed to that behavior to take action.

Environmental prompts, such as reminding individuals to use safety equipment or take the stairways, and including healthy choices in the vending machines and cafeterias, turned out to be very effective.

"A number of other modifications have been tried with mixed success," says Wilson. "Virtually all of these modifications are low-cost, compared to other options. That is what makes them so attractive."

John White, health promotions leader at Dow, says that over the two-year period, a lot was learned about environmental interventions related to weight management. Here are key lessons learned:

Leadership engagement is critical.

Leaders need to be educated and engaged. "Help them understand the business case. We have a shared responsibility here, and they play a part," says White. "That is really the secret."

Employees should be given recognition for supporting each other.

Workers may choose to make their own lifestyle changes, or actively encourage co-workers to do so. Either way, they deserve some credit. At Dow, this is done by asking employees to nominate one another for a "Point of Light" award. "Recognition is a low-cost intervention," says White.

A combination of interventions work best.

Employee behavioral programs, individual counseling, and environmental interventions all work together at Dow. While individualized counseling helps employees to begin taking appropriate action to reduce their own personal risk, a supportive environment helps them in their efforts to maintain lifestyle changes and feel as though they can be successful.

"We don't believe there is one answer or intervention, because employees have a variety of reasons for their behavior," says White.

It should be easy for workers to find healthy food and to exercise.

Employees can be encouraged to move more at work by taking walking breaks, taking the stairs or using other supports appropriate for their location.

In addition to stocking cafeterias and vending machines with healthy food items, some of Dow's worksites also stock high-fiber bars and fruit on shelves right where employees are working, as part of its Healthy Cupboards program.

"The employees replenish it by putting in a designated amount of money for the food they used," says White.

Reference

1. DeJoy DM, Parker KM, Padilla HM, et al. Combining environmental and individual weight management interventions in a work setting: results from the Dow Chemical study. J Occup Environ Med 2010; 33(3):245-252.

For more information on workplace design changes, contact:

John White, Dow Health Services Leader. Phone: (979) 238-2485. E-mail: JMWhite3@dow.com.

Mark G. Wilson, HSD, Director, Workplace Health Group, College of Public Health, University of Georgia, Athens. Phone: (706) 542-4364. Fax: (706) 542-4956. E-mail: mwilson@uga.edu.