When it comes to improving the health of a workforce, an employer’s biggest ally might never set foot in the office. Why? Because that ally is the spouse or partner of your employee. These individuals have the power to either suggest going for an after-dinner walk or bike ride or suggest curling up with a bag of chips and a marathon of whatever’s hot on Netflix.
Spouses and domestic partners have a significant impact on whether employees participate in a workplace wellness program and on the health habits they adopt, so it’s important that employers find ways to include them in wellness program offerings.
The underlying idea here isn’t revolutionary. Numerous studies over the years have demonstrated that we are creatures of our environment. If we surround ourselves with healthy people, odds are better that we will be healthy. The opposite is also true.
There are a few possible reasons for this. In a presentation at the 2016 Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO) Forum, Ashlin Jones, MA, director of research and advanced data science at Sharecare Inc., suggested the correlation could be due to the fact we are likely to marry someone who shares our interests, or the simple fact married couples are around each other so much they take on each other’s traits. Married couples also make decisions together — should we spend that bonus on a new exercise bike or a TV? — that affect each person’s health.
This isn’t just talk. The people we surround ourselves with can have a measurable physiological impact on us. In a separate presentation at the HERO Forum, Andrew Rundle, DrPH, associate professor of epidemiology in Mallman School of Public Health at Columbia University, discussed research that showed connections between partners’ BMI, blood pressure, and both high- and low-density lipoprotein. Meanwhile, a study by Jones found individuals were more likely to develop health risks such as obesity, stress, and reduced life satisfaction if their spouse had the risk, and were less likely to eliminate those risks if the spouse shared them.
Yet another study found that individuals are more likely to make a positive behavior change if their spouse makes the same change. For example:
48 percent of men and 50 percent of women quit smoking when their spouse did, compared to 8 percent if their spouse did not quit.
67 percent of men and 66 percent of women became more physically active when their spouse did, compared to 26 percent and 24 percent, respectively, when their spouse stayed sedentary.
26 percent of men and 36 percent of women lost weight when their partner did, compared to 10 percent and 15 percent when their partner did not lose weight.
Employers can use this dynamic to their advantage to improve employee health and well-being. Data from the HERO Health and Well-being Best Practices Scorecard in Collaboration with Mercer® found that employees are more willing to participate in an employer-sponsored wellness program if their spouse is also involved. According to the report, 28 percent of employees participated in life coaching activities when their spouse did, compared to 14 percent when their spouse was not involved.
That makes a difference, but getting spouses involved can have an even more direct impact on the bottom line. The HERO report also shows that spouses generate about one-third of health care costs in employer-sponsored plans, despite representing just one-fifth of covered members. It makes sense, then, that by improving the health of spouses, employers can potentially reduce their overall health care spend.
Beyond the health-related benefits of having healthier employees, there is evidence people in happy relationships at home spend more time at work, and that job satisfaction goes up when marital satisfaction improves.
There is also a significant opportunity here for savings in the area of mental health care, where the United States spent an estimated $201 billion last year — more than on any other medical condition. This is an area where spousal support can potentially make a big difference. Mental health is an area of growing concern for employers.
A spouse is more than someone who shows up for the occasional office party. They are an employee’s partner in life and in health, and their opinions carry significant weight. Encouraging them to participate in a workplace health and well-being program has the potential to positively impact an employer’s bottom-line health costs, while also improving employee engagement and productivity. That’s good news all around.
5 ways to include spouses or partners in workplace well-being
How can employers encourage involvement in health and well-being activities that will support their employees?
Formally extend wellness benefits to spouses and families.
Help couples develop joint strategies for implementing a healthy diet or exercise plan.
Provide well-being education in formats that employees can easily share with spouses.
Create information targeted specifically to spouses.
Provide on-site wellness activities and coaching specifically for spouses.