Healthy Workplaces

The numbers are sobering. In Multnomah County, more than half of adults are overweight or obese and at risk for chronic conditions including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, stroke and high blood pressure.

The costs of obesity – both the personal health costs and the shared financial costs – are staggering. According to the 2012 Oregon Overweight, Obesity, Physical Activity and Nutrition Facts report from the Oregon Health Authority, Oregon medical costs related to obesity among adults reached $1.6 billion in 2006. Additionally, obese people have annual medical costs estimated at $1,429 higher than costs for those who are not obese. Each year, as obesity and chronic disease levels rise, the price tag goes even higher.

Women have long been known to play an important role in our homes when it comes to health. We can also play a pivotal role in the community as we battle the rising incidence of obesity and chronic disease. We can help make healthy changes to the places where we spend our time, including where we work.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, women make up nearly half (47%) of the total labor force in our country. As working women, we spend more than half our waking lives at work. Our environments at work can help or hinder our personal efforts to get and stay healthy. Access to healthy food and to opportunities for physical activity helps create a culture of wellness that benefits all of us.

Employers bear much of the burden of increased health costs and are seeing that investments in employee health and well being pay off in the long run. Healthy workers mean higher productivity, less absenteeism and lower costs for health care, disability and workers’ compensation.

Become an advocate for a healthier workplace:

Talk with your coworkers about healthy snacks. Replace the office candy jar with a healthy snack bowl filled with seasonal fruit – berries, apples and mandarin oranges are always popular – and unsalted nuts. Keeping the candy jar, but moving it out of sight can help cut down on mindless snacking and extra calories that can pack on pounds. Ask your employer or vending contractor to offer healthy choices in vending machines.

Ask your employer to provide easy access to tap water along with durable cups for drinking. If the tap water at your worksite isn’t great, ask management to install a drinking water filter on one or more taps. Put up signs to let people know that fresh, clean tap water is available.

Integrate physical activity into the workday. Build stretching breaks into meeting agendas or take your meetings outside with “walking meetings” when possible. Ask your employer to unlock staircases and make taking the stairs as convenient as taking the elevator.

Advocate for breastfeeding support at your workplace. Breastfeeding is one of the most effective things a mother can do to protect the lifelong health of her baby and herself. Is there a convenient, safe, private and comfortable location at your worksite for mothers to pump during the day? Are schedules flexible enough to allow women the opportunity to pump two or three times during the workday?

Join your workplace wellness team. If there isn’t one, start one. Wellness teams can help get buy-in from leadership, offer an opportunity to assess what healthy changes can be made and help build momentum for workplace wellness.

As with our individual health, even small changes can add up to big results. By advocating for healthy changes at work, we can use our individual and collective influence to build healthier communities for all of us.

Lillian Shirley, BSN, MPH, MPA, is the director of the Multnomah County Health Department. For more information on workplace and community wellness, go to

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