Employers who want to encourage heart-healthy behavior by employees should share seven important messages, the American Heart Association advises. 

The messages are highlighted in the association's new guidelines for employers who want to promote heart health in increasingly popular "workplace wellness" programs. They are: stop smoking, get active, lose weight, eat better, manage blood pressure, control cholesterol and reduce blood sugar.

Employers who incorporate the AHA’s “Life’s Simple 7” plan into their programs will have healthier employees, the AHA advisory panel wrote in Circulation.

“There are about 155 million working Americans today, that’s about half of our population,” said Dr. Elliott M. Antman, senior physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and president of the American Heart Association.

It makes sense to target education and intervention efforts at this large group using workplace wellness programs, he said.

“We want to inform people about what heart-healthy living involves and have companies recognized for promoting heart health,” Antman told Reuters Health by phone. “We hope the lessons learned from that environment will be carried home so workers’ spouses and family will benefit as well.”

A “comprehensive” workplace wellness program must include health education, supportive social and physical environments, integration into other organizational initiatives, links to other programs like employee health and safety, and wellness screenings. Employers need high-quality models to develop and implement effective programs, according to the AHA recommendations.

Antman referred to the AHA’s My Life Check online tool (here), which rates an individual’s level of heart health based on the Life’s Simple 7 criteria and assigns an overall score out of 10.

This tool gives individuals a sense of their heart health. Employee scores can be averaged to give a whole company an idea of how well they are promoting healthy behavior, he said.

“Companies can track progress over time, which is different than what is available now,” Antman said.

Each workplace is different, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach to workplace wellness, he said – some employers may have a gym in the building or access to one off-site, but may need to improve the food offered at the cafeteria, or provide more walking space.

Antman hopes that by recognizing employers who have effectively implemented a program, the AHA will inspire more and more companies to take part.

Other recognition programs, like HealthLead and Wellness Council of America’s Well Workplace Awards, are inconsistent with each other and do not focus specifically on heart health, according to the AHA advisory.

“It can be confusing, not knowing which scorecard you want to use for your program,” said Julie Stich, director of research for the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans.

If an employer has noted that heart problems are one of their most frequent employee health issues, then this new AHA scoring system may be useful, Stich told Reuters Health by phone. It seems straightforward and incorporates many aspects that companies already include in their programs, she said.

But many employers still don’t have a clear picture of health status in the workplace, she said. Those who do most commonly cite diabetes as the biggest issue, with heart disease coming second, she said.

Health benefits and missed days of work due to illness are among the biggest employer expenses, Antman noted, and investing in a wellness program should yield higher productivity and decreased expenses.

For smaller companies, there are low cost or no-cost wellness options, Stich said. But, she added, it can take three to five years before you can measure the impact of a wellness program.