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Bike and health expert advocates collaborative approach to wellness

Originally posted September 25, 2013 by Kathleen Koster on https://ebn.benefitnews.com

The workplace strategy for health improvement is easily expressed as a bicycling metaphor where bicyclists struggle with the uphill stretches and use caution to coast on downward slopes. Gary Earl, former vice president of benefits and health care for Caesars Entertainment Corporation, suggested employers could learn from the biking world when improving their wellness strategy, speaking during a panel discussion at the Benefits Forum & Expo in New Orleans on Monday.

“Our job [as HR professionals] is to improve the lives of human beings. We’re responsible for that,” explained Earl, founder and team captain of Journey for Health Tour, for which Earl and his team are riding a bicycle 3,000 miles across America to promote health improvement.

While working for Caesars, Earl transformed the company’s outlook on wellness programs and health benefits from a cost-only perspective to an asset for the workforce and business.

“[My employer’s] vision was the traditional vision: to offer affordable benefit plans to employees and to reduce costs. We turned that upside down. We wanted to move it from an expense to an asset,” he said.

He created an affordable equation to prove his strategy would improve the population’s health by developing a mathematic equation to show company executives the value in this paradigm shift.

That equation illustrated how employees’ positive health experience and positive attitude generates an increase in productivity, sustainability and satisfaction, which would lead to an improvement in company earnings.

“We have to look at health benefits as an opportunity, an asset,” Earl stressed.

Earl believes HR and benefits professionals need to hold themselves accountable to improving population health and always passionately advocate wellness—not simply view this responsibility as part of a dry job description.

Over time, we have created the problems afflicting our health system and it’s our responsibility as a community to fix today’s prevalent issues, said Dr. David Whitehouse, MD, chief medical officer, UST GLOBAL, a fellow panelist at the conference session.

“The ecosystem of health and the obesity endemic exist because of modernization. During World War II there were food shortages and we developed preservatives [to make our food last longer]. We then wanted to make our lives more convenient, so we developed transport and we stopped exercising and walking. We have, in fact, through modernization and our own design for comfort, created the epidemic,” said Whitehouse.

Earl seconded that point, adding that these health issues “can’t be viewed in isolation. They are systematic problems, which means that they are interconnected and interrelated. We need to approach this by connecting all aspects of the community, whether it’s faith, safety, education, business or economic development—there’s a real balance to be able to draw them all together.”

He added that business owners could drive this change. “They don’t own that change but they can be a catalyst. By coming together in uncommon ways but for a common purpose stimulates the change,” he said.

Employers and company leaders must connect with communities to make significant change. Applying the bike metaphor again, Earl said that we need to encourage each other when facing uphill challenges and learn from one another to find solutions. And for those downhill stretches, Earl explained that in biking, “you don’t ever coast downhill; you want to keep that leg-mind momentum going.” Employers must also use caution to stay in control of their initiatives and keep forward momentum, without swerving off the edge of the road.

“You’re not going to improve an individual’s health without understanding what those social and environmental elements are,” Earl said. “You have to put in the energy.”

Employers can align medical groups and local systems by working with the community. They can make a customized approach through patient-centered medical homes, on-site clinics or Accountable Care Organizations. Whatever employers develop with their local groups, they must work together to fix the dramatic health issues Americans face and struggle with.

“If we don’t overcome our shyness and work collaboratively then we will live with the misfortunes of our unintended consequences,” said Whitehouse.