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Study to look for new ways to engage workers in wellness programs

Housekeepers, food service workers less likely to participate in employer-based health interventions

by Diane Duke WilliamsFebruary 4, 2016

Workplace wellness programs can be effective in helping employees lose weight. However, workers in occupations such as housekeeping, food service and patient care are less likely to participate in employer-based health and wellness programs.

To study and tackle this disparity, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have received a $3 million grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Researchers will evaluate efforts to actively engage workers in healthier behaviors aimed at losing weight and keeping it off.

The grant supports a team led by Bradley Evanoff, MD, an occupational health and safety specialist, and Graham Colditz, MD, DrPH, an epidemiologist and disease-prevention expert. The group includes experts in community-based obesity prevention and in workplace health and safety interventions.

“Obesity is a huge problem in the United States, and there are large health disparities between workers with higher incomes and lower incomes,” said Evanoff, the Richard and Elizabeth Henby Sutter Professor of Occupational, Industrial and Environmental Medicine. “Workers with lower incomes are less likely to use existing health programs at their workplaces because of barriers ranging from shift work to the availability of healthy food options. We will look at some of the reasons that current programs don’t meet the needs of these workers and try to find new ways to engage them.”

BJC HealthCare is one of the largest nonprofit health-care organizations in the United States. The study will recruit workers such as housekeepers, patient-care technicians and food-service workers, through BJC’s employee health program, Help for Your Health.

The first phase of the five-year randomized study will involve employee focus groups to help the researchers better understand work demands, workplace culture and people’s openness to change. This information will help the team develop the next phase of the study, which will involve strategizing how to help 900 employees lose weight and keep it off.

Some of these strategies might include healthier eating and more physical activity. All study participants will be enrolled in a group-level intervention, which will address the workplace factors that contribute to unhealthy behaviors related to obesity. Workers dealing with obesity also will be offered an individualized weight-loss program that includes meetings with a health coach and text messages for ongoing support.

“Historically, worksite interventions have targeted only the individual, ignoring work organization and work environmental factors that affect behavior,” said Colditz, the Niess-Gain Professor of Surgery and a professor of medicine. “We hope the interventions we develop and evaluate in this study will help broaden our knowledge of how to reach workers in certain occupations and help them lose weight and improve their health.”

Washington University School of Medicine’s 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient-care institutions in the nation, currently ranked sixth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.