Does your company have a health advocacy program?

Whether you're back in the office, still working from home or doing a little of both, your employer should care about your physical and mental health.

As I wrote in a previous column, overwork impacts physical and mental health with stress and burnout. It does no favors for either you or your company.

These days, it's a smart company that cares about its employees' well-being. Talk is cheap, though. A company can say it cares, but do its actions match its words?

And what can you, as an employee, do to help change things?

Let's start with what constitutes health advocacy. There are five things to look for. Does your company:

• Provide practical and accessible programs?

• Have a health-conscious work environment?

• Integrate wellness into the company structure?

• Link wellness to existing support programs?

• Offer health screenings and education?

Not surprisingly, more than half of large employers offer such services to their employees, in addition to generous vacation policies and days off. It's also not surprising these companies tend to be in the demanding technology industry (Google, Twitter, Microsoft, Genentech) and health and fitness (LifeFitness, Kind, Camelback).

In my experience, the human resources department is usually in charge of employee wellness, and it could well be there's someone in your company who is an effective advocate for your health and well-being as part of their duties.

But HR people are not experienced in health, wellness or health care. And they are limited in what they can do without violating HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act).

There's also the matter of trust. I don't blame people who are reluctant to share health information with their employers.

It's not uncommon for companies to, at a minimum, offer an EAP, or Employee Assistance Program. If your company has one, use it. Initial consultations are usually at no cost to the employee.

Another solution is for a company to contract with a health advocacy company or a private patient advocate, a resource that the HR staff can call on when an employee needs more help than they can provide.

Because most patient advocates have a background in health care (most are registered nurses), they are knowledgeable about the health care system, resources and treatments. They can also bring employees' concerns to HR and management while protecting employees' identity. That goes a long way toward establishing trust.

There are a lot of companies that offer these services to businesses, and the Society for Human Resources Management offers a vendor directory on its website. Of course, the companies pitch their ability to lower employees' health care costs, but they're also primarily concerned with the health of the workforce.

Services may include helping you research an illness or condition; make the best use of your insurance; and advise what questions to ask your doctor. You can confidentially discuss sensitive issues, whether it's substance abuse or mental illness. If your source of stress is managing care for a loved one, the health advocate can help you arrange for the help you need.

When a company spends money on a vendor or consultant, it's paying for advice. The health advocate can make recommendations for creating a workplace that is mindful of employees' health and wellness. I might, for example, recommend healthier choices in the vending machines and cafeteria.

You probably can't get your company to sign a contract with a health advocacy company or consultant (well, unless you own the company), but it's worth making the suggestion via whatever channels you have available to you.

Meanwhile, if you supervise a team, here are some things you can do with them and for them to promote health and wellness:

• Move. Stand and stretch at the desk. Take the stairs. Go for a walk.

• Make sure everyone is following safety protocols (shoes, eye protection, etc.).

• Have a healthy potluck lunch and swap recipes.

• Reward results, not effort.

• Recognize people who use their work time wisely and get assignments in on time.

• Let team members disconnect from email and chat when they're not working.

• Encourage everyone to use their paid time off.

• Set aside 15 minutes in the afternoon, turn out the lights and relax or meditate.

I think you'll be pleasantly surprised with performance and productivity if you put practices like these into action. And you might feel better yourself!

• Teri Dreher is a board-certified patient advocate. A critical care nurse for 30+ years, she is founder of NShore Patient Advocates ( She is offering a free, 30-minute phone consultation by calling (312) 788-2640 to make an appointment.

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