Opiate addiction: Alive and well and thriving

The statistics involving opiates and opioids in Connecticut are grim, and unless you’ve been paying attention, may be surprising: Our State has surpassed the national death rate for drug and opioid overdoses since 2013. From 2000 to 2014, nearly half a million persons in the United States died from drug overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The number of prescriptions for some of these medications has increased dramatically since the early 1990s. A consumer culture willing to “take a pill for what ails us” — and the perception of prescription drugs as less harmful than illicit drugs — are other contributors to the problem.  As a result, unintentional overdose deaths involving opioid pain relievers have quadrupled since 1999, and by 2007, outnumbered those involving heroin and cocaine. There has been a rash of high-profile tragedies involving these drugs, including the recent death of singer/songwriter Prince from an overdose of fentanyl. But you don’t have to be rich or famous to access and abuse drugs.

According to several national surveys, prescription medications, such as those used to treat pain, attention deficit disorders and anxiety are being abused at a rate second only to marijuana among illicit drug users. The consequences of this abuse have been steadily worsening, reflected in increased treatment admissions, emergency room visits, and overdose deaths.

Why are opioids effective – and dangerous?

Opioids are synthetic drugs manufactured to work similarly to opiates like heroin or morphine. They include drugs like oxycodone, methadone, hydrocodone, hydromorphine, and fentanyl. In the past several years, the use of opiates, including heroin, has increased significantly in Connecticut, as have fatal doses. In 2015 alone, heroin played a role in 415 deaths in our state.

Opioids act by attaching to specific proteins called opioid receptors, which are found in the brain, spinal cord, gastrointestinal tract, and other organs in the body. When these drugs attach to their receptors, they reduce the perception of pain. Opioids can also produce drowsiness, mental confusion, nausea, constipation, and, depending upon the amount of drug taken, can depress respiration.

Some people experience a euphoric response to opioid medications, since these drugs also affect the brain regions involved in reward. Those who abuse opioids may seek to intensify their experience by taking the drug in ways other than those prescribed. For example, OxyContin is an oral medication used to treat moderate to severe pain through a slow, steady release of the opioid. People who abuse OxyContin may snort or inject it, increasing their risk for serious medical complications, including overdose.

Data shows that people who use opioids non-medically don’t typically get them from doctors or prescriptions. Rather, they come from a relative’s medicine cabinet or a friend, and more often than not, the addiction can stem from a legitimate use, such as a prescription for painkillers following dental work, surgery or to help manage chronic pain.

Although most people take prescription medications responsibly, an estimated 52 million people (20 percent of those aged 12 and older) have used prescription drugs for non-medical reasons at least once in their lifetimes. A National Institute on Drug Abuse survey found that about one in 12 high school seniors reported past-year nonmedical use of the prescription pain reliever Vicodin, and one in 20 reported abusing OxyContin — making these medications among the most commonly abused drugs by adolescents.

Tightening controls on prescription pain killers, however, drives some people abusing pills to switch to heroin, which is cheaper and far more available. In fact, according to CDC data, heroin use is rising again even as abuse of opioids is leveling off.  From 2014 to 2015, the number of times fentanyl was found in the bloodstream of overdose victims increased 150 percent, and last year it was responsible for one quarter of all drug overdoses. Law-enforcement officials report an increased availability of illicitly manufactured fentanyl, and drug dealers cut heroin with fentanyl to increase the potency of the product.  Drug overdose deaths involving heroin continue to climb sharply, with heroin overdoses more than doubling from 2012 to 2015.

Addressing the problem

Addiction, which can include physical dependence, is distinguished by compulsive drug seeking and use despite sometimes devastating consequences. Someone who is physically dependent on a medication will experience withdrawal symptoms when use of the drug is abruptly reduced or stopped. These symptoms can be mild or severe (depending on the drug) and can usually be managed medically or avoided by progressively reducing dosage and frequency.

Dependence is often accompanied by tolerance, or the need to take higher doses of a medication to get the same effect. When tolerance occurs, it can be difficult for a physician to evaluate whether a patient is developing a drug problem, or has a real medical need for higher doses to control their symptoms.

Taken as prescribed, opioids can be used to manage pain safely and effectively. However, when abused, even a single large dose can cause severe respiratory depression and death. Properly managed, short-term medical use of opioid analgesics rarely causes addiction.

Only under a physician’s supervision can opioids be used safely with other drugs. Typically, they should not be used with other substances that depress the central nervous system, such as alcohol, antihistamines, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, or general anesthetics, because these combinations increase the risk of life-threatening respiratory depression.

Always follow the prescribed directions, be aware of potential interactions with other drugs, never stop or change a dosing regimen without first discussing it with a healthcare provider, and never use another person’s prescription. Additionally, unused or expired medications should be properly discarded per U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines or at U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration collection sites.

For people experiencing dependency or addiction issues, there are medical solutions. Years of research have shown that addiction to any drug (illicit or prescribed) is a brain disease that can be treated effectively. Treatment takes into account the type of drug used and the needs of the individual. Successful treatment may need to incorporate several components, including detoxification, counseling, and sometimes the use of addiction medications. Multiple courses of treatment may be needed for patients to make a full recovery.

Rich or poor, black or white, living in the city or in the country, it doesn’t matter – the reach of illicit drug use touches all walks of life. If someone you know may be abusing pain killers, consider speaking with them and suggesting they talk with their physicians or other healthcare providers for guidance, and recognize the same issues in yourself if you’ve been using pain medications, even for legitimate purposes.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Take a vacation already, will ya?!

Experts tell us it is important to occasionally turn off and restart our cell phones, computers, and “smart” TVs. This refreshes memory and allows system updates to download and install. Similarly, when we sleep, our bodies self-regulate, refurbishing depleted nutrients, switching focus to other parts of our brains, and promoting metabolic changes that help replenish and strengthen us.

Knowing this to be true, doesn’t it make sense that taking a vacation from work is just as vital for keeping us fresh, focused and healthy? You’d think so, yet it’s amazing how many people, including senior leaders, resist taking this critical personal time and suffer as a consequence . . .  as does their work and their businesses.

We don’t take time off for many reasons. Typically these include having too much work to do, fear of losing our jobs, or being unable to afford to go away. Of a more insidious nature, with tough workloads and schedules, cost issues and market demands, employers often send mixed signals to their staff about accommodating time off. Instead of being supportive, there’s often the unspoken caveat, “Sure, take the time off, but make sure all your work gets done and nothing falls through the cracks.” The insinuation is that vacations are inconvenient, and the time is allowed reluctantly instead of graciously as the earned benefit and healthy break it represents.

Time off from our jobs and our regular routines helps us manage stress, improves our bonds with family, friends and co-workers, can alleviate fatigue, and strengthens our immune systems. When we’re stressed our work performance suffers. That has an impact on customer service, as well as on safety, quality and productivity. Most of us are harder to get along with when we’re under pressure and feeling anxious, and more prone to depression, memory loss, distraction and bad decision making. We eat poorly and sleep less. And while vacation or time away from work and our regular routines won’t cure it all, vacations offer an important break.

Ironically, the United States lags behind most developed countries when it comes to paid vacation time, and vacation is typically not mandated in our country, or a legal right. In contrast, the United Kingdom requires employers to give at least 28 vacation days. In Finland, France and Greece the minimum is 25, and in Germany and Japan, it’s 20.

As in all other aspects of work, those in senior positions should lead by example. If a business owner or executive is not taking any paid time off – or if he or she goes on “vacation” but are still accessible 24/7 – they are making a clear statement about how employees should treat their own vacation time.

Here are some additional reasons why taking vacation time off for you and your staff is so critical:

  • Time away from work empowers and motivates employees. Leaving the office for a week or two forces you to shift major responsibilities to your supervisors and other employees. This fosters more of an entrepreneurial spirit, empowers staff, and can actually boost productivity. Furthermore, it instills confidence, promotes delegation, demonstrates that they are trusted, and shows that things won’t fall apart when the boss is away.
  • Vacations – or a failure to vacation – points to other potential problems. When employees are not using their vacation days, it can indicate a problem with the team, with their workload, or with delegation and supervision.  Employees may be overwhelmed or choose to not take time off to cover up wrongdoing or gaps that need to be addressed.
  • Time away helps you and your staff develop a new or fresher perspective.For many of us, time off actually fuels creativity and gives us the opportunity to think about solutions to problems and efficiencies that can’t be addressed at our normal work pace and with everyday work pressures and distractions.
  • Disengaging is healthy.Taking a break from work and our daily routines refreshes us physically, mentally and emotionally. Sometimes we simply need to be away from our work “families” and the constant pressure of deadlines, customer expectations, commuting and even the same boring lunches, sounds and surroundings.

Even when we enjoy and value our jobs and the people we work with, getting away promotes better health and reinvigorates us on many levels. Leaders need to remind their staff how important vacation time is to the employee and to the company, and walk the talk.

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If you’re not enjoying the benefits of a wellness program at your company, join CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

The cost of under-utilizing healthcare benefits

These past several years have seen a significant shift to more cost sharing between employers and employees. Specifically, the trend has been to higher-deductible plans, increased co-pays and revamping traditional POS, PPO and HMO coverage in favor of health savings accounts and related  plans designed to help employees and their families manage their health and the cost of care. The good news is that this evolution is helping to control the annual cost of employee premiums for many members, but employees’ out-of-pocket costs now have to be managed differently to compensate for the higher-deductible alternatives.

Reaching that deductible means writing a check, paying cash or swiping a card for covered medical costs like visits to physicians and health facilities, and for tests and pharmacy requirements. Once employees and their covered family members achieve the deductible threshold, more robust insurance coverage — often including tiered pharmacy coverage — kicks in, significantly reducing out-of-pocket expenses.

One of the challenges of these modern benefit payment arrangements is that some people may resist paying for services they don’t deem necessary – like visits to the physicians when they or their dependents are sick or injured, or the purchase of drugs and medicine at retail cost – because of the cash outlay. They also may “horde” medical care, waiting until later in the benefits year when they’ve reached their deductible before seeking costly diagnostic imaging and other tests, or for filling prescriptions.

Fortunately, many benefits such as annual physicals, mammograms and Pap Smears, eye exams, scheduled immunizations, flu shots and more are covered by many plans without a co-payment.  But just because they’re covered doesn’t mean members are taking advantage of these benefits, and relying on insurance providers alone to drive home this utilization message isn’t enough.

Employers share responsibility for ensuring that employees understand their benefits plans, utilize them properly, and have someone to speak with if they have questions or concerns. And while you can’t easily check to see if employees are going to their doctors when they have a cold, or getting their flu shots in the fall, there are steps we can take to address benefit usage and to help ensure understanding and compliance.

These include holding benefits communication meetings or discussing plan coverage at staff meetings, luncheons or during work hours. Your designated human resources person should be available as a resource, and you can consider bringing health screenings for blood pressure, body mass index, cholesterol and sugar levels in-house. Nutritionists, fitness coaches, massage therapists and other health professionals also make “office calls.” Flu shot clinics can be offered at many work sites, and employers can distribute literature, send emails, post information on websites or Facebook pages and text related health-benefit information to employees.

Some companies hold internal contests or challenges to incentivize employees, and engage collaboratively with their health benefits providers, who also often a wide range of supportive communication, outreach and education options relating to general benefits, and to your specific benefits coverage. Many also offer private access to healthcare portals where members can see a confidential record of their benefits usage, get information on appointments, review test results, ask questions and more.

Health plan options and benefits are going to continue evolving as the nation works to get a handle on runaway healthcare costs, the high price of medicine, and clear information about compliance, prevention and warning signs. High-deductible plans aren’t likely to disappear anytime soon, but employers and their benefits providers can work together to help ensure proper utilization, clear communication, and a path to improved health and wellness without adding extra costs.

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If you’re not enjoying the benefits of a wellness program at your company, join CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Getting comfortable at work

How you feel about your work place, and your work space, has as much to do with productivity, teamwork and improved communication as it does comfort. Employees spend a lot of time at work, and the composition of their working, meeting, and common areas says much about an organization’s culture, values and health.

People like a flexible work culture that helps each employee personalize his or her experience as much as possible. Business owners are finding that more flexibility leads to greater retention, better production and improved customer and employee satisfaction. All of this leads to a better bottom line, as well.

Not everyone works the same way. While some people may prefer a constant buzz around the office, others like quiet spaces to concentrate. It’s a bonus when an employer can match someone’s needs to how – and what — they produce, or to the way they like to work. Varied spaces, when it’s possible, enhance workplace wellness and make offices more inviting.

Customized work spaces can have lounge chairs and couches as well as traditional desks. Mixing it up in the workplace gives employees something different to look at every day instead of a boring, neutral-colored walled cubicle. Empty or unused spaces can be retrofitted as open conference areas, meeting rooms, or gathering places for brainstorming, quality checks, or coffee, juice and snack stations. Plants can be added for warmth and color. The idea is to think creatively, and the more you can involve employees in planning how to use office and warehouse space, the more engaged they will be.

Workers whose companies allow them to help decide when, where, and how they work are more likely to be satisfied with their jobs, perform better, and view their company as more innovative than competitors that don’t offer such choices. We can’t always have what we want, but trying to find a compromise – and remaining open to employee ideas and suggestions – goes a long way.

Other simple steps can be taken to improve life in the office, on the plant floor or in other working areas. These include:

  • Place desks near natural light, which helps keep us better attuned to our own circadian rhythms and is a mood enhancer
  • Choose bright and welcoming artwork and colors
  • Allow employees to decorate their own cubicles, offices or work spaces, and to contribute to decorating the office, meeting rooms and common areas
  • Create open spaces throughout the work area by lowering the sides of cubicles and creating café-style seating for mingling and working
  • Reduce clutter so people don’t feel hemmed in, and to reduce visual chaos
  • Involve employees by asking them how they work best, what currently helps or doesn’t, and by offering them a decision-making role in rearranging work areas
  • The typical American sits an average of 9.3 hours a day – which is far longer than most of us sleep each day. Consider “walking or standing meetings,” especially for smaller groups, and when possible, take the meeting outdoors.

The more we can give employees a say in creating a comfortable, effective workplace for themselves and their peers, the happier they’ll be.  Less stress means greater satisfaction and increased productivity and retention. Little that we do in life is “one size fits all.” So the workplace shouldn’t try to be that, either.

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If you’re not enjoying the benefits of a wellness program at your company, join CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Saying “Thanks” is Healthy for Giver and Receiver

Think about your own life, work, and accomplishments. It feels good when we do a good job. But while that satisfaction itself can be very rewarding, acknowledgement from our bosses, peers, family members, and friends is equally important. Telling someone he or she has done a good job isn’t just the right thing to do, but also is a mechanism for improving emotional and physical health, productivity, teamwork, and service.

When someone feels taken for granted, unrecognized or under-appreciated, it has a direct impact on their emotional health and stress levels. Lack of recognition, especially in the workplace, often is mentioned as a contributing factor to overall employee dissatisfaction. And the more unhappy employees are at work, the more productivity, teamwork and customer relations may suffer.  Quality suffers, as well, and increased stress is a known factor in promoting irritability, increasing conflict, interfering with sleep and diet, boosting absenteeism and increasing “presenteeism,” a loss of workplace productivity resulting from employee health problems and/or personal issues. It also contributes to increases in blood pressure, heart disease, poor nutrition and weight gain.

Americans like being told “thanks” but aren’t that great at thanking others, according to a national survey on gratitude commissioned in 2012 by the John Templeton Foundation. The polling firm Penn Shoen Berland surveyed over 2,000 people in the United States, capturing perspectives from different ages, ethnic groups, income levels, religions and more.

Gratitude was enormously important to respondents, who also admitted they think about, feel, and espouse gratitude more readily than expressing it to others. This might be why respondents also felt that gratitude in America is declining.

  • More than 90 percent of those polled agreed that grateful people are more fulfilled, lead richer lives, and are more likely to have friends.
  • More than 95 percent said that it is anywhere from “somewhat” to “very” important for mothers and fathers to teach gratitude.
  • People are less likely to express gratitude at work than anyplace else. Seventy-four percent never or rarely express gratitude to their boss. But people are eager to have a boss who expresses gratitude to them. Seventy percent would feel better about themselves if their boss was more grateful, and 81 percent would work harder.
  • 93 percent of those polled agreed that grateful bosses were more likely to be successful, and only 18 percent thought that grateful bosses would be seen as “weak.”

The bottom line is that we’re better at noticing and tallying what we personally do than what other people do.  According to the data, most of the people surveyed appreciate being appreciated, but lack in their tendency to say “thanks”– despite knowing that expressing gratitude can bring more happiness, meaning, professional success, and interpersonal connection into their lives.

Ultimately, there are so many ways to say “thanks” to our employees. Whether verbally, through written or public commendation, one-on-one, or in front of peers at staff meetings, gratitude is an important employee relations, productivity and stress-reduction tool. And while bonuses, pay raises, gift cards, and compensatory time off are terrific recognition tools, employees want to feel like it is more than simply “doing their jobs and meeting expectations” that matters.

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If you’re not enjoying the benefits of a wellness program at your company, join CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

 

 

Patient Portals are Good News for Medical Consumers

The days of vast paper records and colorful files in your doctor’s office papering the walls from floor to ceiling are rapidly changing. As physicians, clinics, outpatient service providers and hospitals grapple with evolving digital technology and healthcare mandates, maintaining accurate electronic records has become a priority. The changes are taking time, are costly for providers, and are confusing for patients. But the end result, sometime in the future, will be consistent reporting and patient tracking, truly portable records, simplified access, and improved patient safety and quality.

The healthcare world is being forced to comply by evolving Federal and State mandates and policies. Federal reimbursement strategies for Medicare and Medicaid providers require movement to these new ways of tracking data, though implementation is happening in stages. Called “Meaningful Use” regulations, providers participating in these federal programs have deadlines for implementing Electronic Health Records (EHRs), and in the coming years will continue adding other technological requirements.

The rest of the provider world is following – and sometimes leading — at varying degrees of enthusiasm and compliance. Each of us likely has seen evidence of this new healthcare world:  Many providers make appointments by email or text, X-rays and other diagnostic images are sent to providers electronically, and patient portals are being established that allow patients to review their records, test results and medical histories online through their providers’ websites.

There also had been an uptick in telephone and email-based medical services, from scheduling appointments to communicating with nurses and physicians. Patients who live in more rural areas or who suffer from chronic disease such as diabetes or congestive heart failure can complete simple testing online, such as stepping on a scale that sends your weight to a monitoring service, as well as testing your blood pressure or sugar levels and having this data sent electronically to a medical professional. By reviewing these results, provider can flag vital metrics that might indicate a medical problem or need for an intervention.

For the most part, the uptake of patient portals has followed on the heels of electronic health records. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, 41 percent of family practice physicians use portals for secure messaging, another 35 percent use them for patient education, and about one-third use them for prescribing medications and scheduling appointments.

For patients, using portals is relatively easy – provided you have an email address. There is a small learning curve though, and for older patients not as comfortable as Millennials with technology – or for people who don’t have access to the Internet or smart phones – access is more difficult. Getting started typically requires setting up a confidential user ID and password. Then, in addition to scheduling and record viewing, many providers offer a wide spectrum of educational materials and help lines on topics ranging from nutrition and fitness, to preventing heart disease or diabetes.

Communicating through portals can save nurses and receptionists time, too, since the messages pop up in real time on their computer screens. Patient-to-doctor or nurse direct communication also cuts out other staff members’ interpretation of medical issues and patient needs that can occur with phone calls or voicemail. And portals can contain updated prescription information, immunization records, medical procedures and dates, visit logs and family history, items that are vital for your physician, for hospitals, and for you, especially if there’s an emergency.

There remain other barriers, though. For example, most portals are English only, which poses a challenge for populations in inner cities and communities that can contain as many as 150 different languages and dialects. And many of these populations don’t have email accounts or trust technology, which also is true for many seniors, regardless of ethnicity, location, or income. These issues are being addressed, though, and eventually, most patients will be using online tools.

Meanwhile, for portal enthusiasts, confidential access to your personal health information has never been easier, nor has the ability to quickly and easily make appointments, leave messages and check recent test results. It’s a brave new world – but in this case, it’s changing for the better relative to quality, patient safety and consumer engagement.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Sharing Wellness Messages Online Boosts Participation

As employers increasingly look to expand participation in health and wellness programs in and out of the workplace, they are constantly examining the range of tools available for sharing messages, communicating benefits, and recognizing employee participation and successes.

As an employer, you may already have posters, written wellness tips, or a newsletter and other communication to promote employee health and wellness. In many organizations, employees go online to complete their personal healthcare assessments, a wellness champion shares health information details, and companies have fitness and nutrition experts come to the workplace. So the next logical step involves reaching audiences when they are away from the office.

Digital communication and social networking are rapidly evolving into primary outreach vehicles for employees and their families. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle isn’t a part-time commitment; while employers were once reticent to communicate with employees beyond work borders, today’s electronic media have changed boundaries involving the availability of information. Now employees are interested in accessing benefits details and useful tips, ideas, nutritional information and other resources around the clock, especially data that helps them live, eat, exercise and pursue their lives in a healthier manner.

Social networking allows people to communicate with one another wherever they are and whenever they choose. As a result, it can be utilized as a catalyst for improving employee participation in ways that traditional communication programs cannot. And the availability of platforms like Facebook, Instagram, websites and a wide variety of messaging services and smart phone apps can translate into increased participation and worker engagement.

On Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, for example, people can share information among their networks of friends and colleagues. That includes articles, blogs, news, opinions, reviews, recipes and much more. They also can form online groups linked by common interests such as general fitness, charity walks, running or bicycle rides, diets and nutritional resources, and much more. Employees can reach out to one another and their wider networks of friends through these media, invite others to join them, share results or goals, and compete for bragging rights.

Employers can participate in this wellness outreach, too, by establishing Facebook and Twitter accounts that focus on health and wellness, posting information on their websites, promoting ideas, sharing articles and event notices, and recognizing employee achievements and team milestones. And the price is right – the investment is time, as most of these vehicles are free to use.

Another good way to increase engagement in health and wellness is to allow employees to help decide what gets posted, shared or communicated via social media. And interactive tools are great for congratulating employees who reach important goals, such as competing in a 5K run, marathon or fitness program, or to invite others to join them in these endeavors. Privacy issues have to be respected, but like any other form of public communication, information can be vetted before it’s posted or shared to ensure compliance with legal, HR and ethical standards and codes of appropriate conduct.

Achieving wellness goals is much easier when you’re not in it alone. Employing tools people already use to plan group activities, promote support and recognize successes can increase retention, boost morale and help everyone improve wellness while trying to get a handle on health care costs.

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If you’re not enjoying the benefits of a wellness program at your company, join CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Are You Maximizing Your Health Benefits?

Earlier this month, someone incredibly lucky – a $63 million lottery winner in California – failed to step up and claim his or her grand prize prior to the closing date, forfeiting the fortune. We can only speculate why they didn’t cash in. Maybe they were ill or had died. Maybe they didn’t need – or want – the money. Or maybe they just threw the winning ticket into the garbage accidentally, never checked the winning numbers, or washed it in their jeans.

Most of us will never walk away from a fortune, or even from an opportunity to save. We clip coupons, fight the Black Friday crowds, shop online, and check the prices of everything we consider purchasing. Yet, there’s one area where many people often fail to think about missed value, lost opportunities and missed savings – and that’s their health and wellness benefits.

Employers can reinforce the value of employees’ “hidden paycheck” through regular reminders, updates, benefit education sessions and by encouraging employees to touch base with their benefit provider’s website, telephone resources, and customer service support. The more employees understand their benefit offerings, the more they can utilize the full spectrum of valuable services, which can include annual health screenings, fitness center discounts, smoking-cessation programs, vaccinations, eye exams, nurse-call lines, disease-management programs and much more.

Most benefits providers reach out regularly to members. But employers also can encourage employees to visit their benefits websites and, if they haven’t already, establish an account. Suggest they review the full range of health and wellness benefits available throughout the year, instead of just tuning in during open-enrollment season. It’s easy to keep track of your progress against a benefits deductible, or to monitor how much you have in your health savings account. And there may well be unexpected surprises for those users willing to take a few minutes to review their plans in more detail.

Though benefits vary widely from plan to plan, here are a few examples of potential missed opportunities:

  • Keeping track of balances (deductibles, health savings accounts, etc.) and claims helps you monitor your healthcare spending, and know when insurance benefits will kick in more fully following completion of deductible requirements as applicable.
  • By knowing what your plan covers, in detail, you will be better able to take advantage of important benefits such as covered annual physicals, OB/GYN visits, mammograms, eye exams and more.
  • Pharmacy benefits such as tiered drug coverage, 90-day mail-order prescriptions, and generics can represent significant cost savings.
  • Many insurance benefits providers offer online or telephone-based services such as nurse help lines, online question and answer forums, and disease-management programs for medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease and respiratory illness.
  • Many benefits providers offer obesity-reduction and nutritional information, educational materials for expectant or new mothers, stress-reduction guidance and a variety of classes.

Reminding employees to complete their online health assessment and access healthcare educational information are simple steps we all can take to become more engaged in helping to manage health and wellness for ourselves, our families, and our employees.

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If you’re not enjoying the benefits of a wellness program at your company, join CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Plan for a good, healthy year

There’s nothing like a clean slate to make you feel you can conquer the world! January is like a year of Mondays  . . . but instead of just having the entire, fresh week to look forward to, you have an entire year ripe with change, opportunity and the 20/20 vision you gained from the previous year’s successes, failures, good intentions or near misses!

January is when most people make – or kick off—their “new year’s resolutions.”  Most organizations do their business planning cyclically, or aligned to their fiscal calendar. But when it comes to employees’ personal health and wellness, this is when they’re typically thinking about losing weight, eating healthier, returning to the gym, taking fitness classes and otherwise looking to improve themselves. Why not tap that vein, metaphorically speaking, and join in the fun and wellness planning?

Employees appreciate their employers’ interests in their wellbeing, and when the workplace offers support and encouragement for helping workers achieve personal goals, it’s a winning combination. If you don’t have one already, this is a great time to establish a voluntary health and wellness committee, under the guidance of your Wellness Champion. Encouraging all employees to complete their CBIA Healthy Connections online healthcare assessment is low-hanging fruit, and as additional incentive, there’s a gift card for the employee when the assessment is complete, and a raffle opportunity for the employer.

Have your health and wellness team speak with their fellow workers to determine what’s foremost on everyone’s minds. Maybe they’d like to meet with a fitness expert, nutritionist or yoga instructor, or have a healthcare screening completed onsite. Team walks, runs, biking or other fitness activities that may also benefit select charities or organizations help build teamwork, reduce stress and improve morale. And when employees choose the topics and do the outreach and coordination, the chances of greater participation are increased.

Employers can help by instigating these activities, funding reasonable ideas, creating incentives for participation, setting goals, and offering gifts for completion or to reward competitors who outperform the rest.

Another way to build teamwork and improve morale is to remember that “giving” doesn’t occur only at the holidays. People need blood, clothes, food, shelter and support throughout the year. January is National Blood Donor Month – consider hosting a blood drive at your workplace. You also can plan food or clothing drives for people. Collect food for animals, and support or adopt a local shelter for animals and donations, or support for homeless individuals, vets and seniors.

Giving has been established as having positive emotional and physical health benefits. It makes people “feel good,” affects us chemically, and heightens our attachment to one another, as well as to the workplace that supports these efforts. And your efforts to encourage health and wellness planning for 2016 – and to reinforce and support these plans over the coming months – are great gifts for a healthy new year!

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If you’re not enjoying the benefits of a wellness program at your company, join CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Sometimes the best gifts can’t be wrapped

If you’ve been thinking about workforce gifts for the 2015 holidays, consider gifts that “keep on giving,” such as improved long-term employee health, tools for reducing stress, and activities that will enhance teamwork, productivity and morale.

Helping your team members meet individual or team goals through successful planning and execution, a sense of accomplishment, providing service, and feeling valued are indisputable contributors to success, retention, and service excellence. Additionally, generosity, giving, and awareness create a sense of increased goodwill and can increase the bond between employer and employee, and among staff.

By supporting employees’ interests in local or national organizations through donations, fund- raising activities and in-kind services, you help your staff achieve that valuable sense of accomplishment and caring that comes from generosity and giving to others.

Additionally, every month brings a variety of wellness, disease awareness and health-related special events, activities and recognition. These represent some of the proverbial “low-hanging fruit” for promoting, encouraging and rewarding employee workforce participation. And if you time your internal outreach to the wellness material being communicated through the media, you’ll find the resources and educational information robust and easily available.

Here are some simple ideas you can consider for a healthier 2016

Health and wellness planning: Host a planning session — led by employees or by an outside expert – where participants can talk about their personal health and wellness goals, and discuss possible group support and activities.

Nutritional guidance:  Ask a professional nutritionist or dietitian to meet with staff at a group lunch, or in one-on-one or small group meetings to talk about healthy eating, smart dieting and nutritional awareness.

Gym memberships: If you don’t already, consider offering an allowance to employees to use for purchasing a gym, yoga or fitness center membership, or consider bringing a fitness trainer onsite.

Offer incentives: Some organizations incentivize employees by rewarding them for healthy activities such as setting and achieving personal wellness goals, or by completing wellness workshops and classes. Many companies also allow employees to take work time to visit their primary care physician or OB/GYN for their annual physicals. Plus, routine visits are covered in full for CBIA Health Connections members.

Community outreach: Building up morale in the company is a commonly overlooked wellness initiative, but the results are always positive. Lead this initiative by getting a team together for a charity event or race, volunteer, “adopt” a family or charity for the holidays, raise money as a team for gifts, match team and individual efforts, and encourage employees to donate food, time and services.

Stress relief: Studies show that a power nap can increase alertness, memory and stamina. Some companies have designated an office where employees can reserve times during the day for relaxing, and forward-thinking organizations find ways to reward employees and help them “recharge” by allowing them much-needed “down time” that is customized to each employees’ needs. Also consider inviting a yoga instructor or massage therapist to the workplace, and if possible, create a space for team instruction.

Smoking-cessation: A variety of free or inexpensive smoking cessation programs are available locally through the American Lung Association, hospitals and other sources.

There’s no shortage of good ideas and easily adopted practices for increasing employee health and wellness. CBIA continuously reaches out to our Health Connections members to discover how they bring wellness into the workplace without spending a lot of money. From time to time this column runs best-practice stories, and we’re always interested in what you are doing, regardless of how seemingly small, to promote health and wellness in your workplace.

Have a happy and healthy holiday season and year to come!

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If you’re not enjoying the benefits of a wellness program at your company, join CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!