Ms. Messineo said, however, that she is optimistic because Sutter, a hospital and medical group, is now analyzing employee health claims data to learn whether its workers' needs for targeted wellness programs might vary by geographical region
“In one region maybe it's obesity, in another (it may be) based on depression,” she said.
Addressing such problems is key to keeping employees at work and focused on the job, the speakers said.
“If you want to solve wellness, solve mental health,” said Carol A. Harnett, a health, disability and employee benefits consultant based in Simsbury, Conn. “You will get a whole lot more bang for your buck.”
Keeping employees healthy may also require “social mapping,” or looking at issues that impact their lives such as a lack of grocery stores selling healthy foods in the neighborhoods where they tend to live, said Gary L. Earl, vice president of health transformation, national accounts at UnitedHealthcare in Fripp Island, S.C.
Mr. Earl told of one obese worker forced to purchase groceries at a liquor store because of a lack of supermarkets in his neighborhood.
Managers' treatment of workers also has an impact, the panel said.
“When you steal someone's sense of control of their destiny, there is no way they are going to go home and be healthy or behave healthy, and what do they show up as?” Mr. Earl asked. “They show up as an absence. Or they show up as a claim.”
To learn how employees feel about their work environment and managers, Sutter conducts an annual work experience survey as part of its leave management efforts, Ms. Messineo said.
“You would think, when you look at our health data, that the very, very sick are really driving our absence,” Ms. Messineo said. But departments scoring low on the work experience surveys account for more absence issues.
That means helping managers become better leaders could reduce a negative impact on absence, the panel said.
“We have also noticed a correlation between employee satisfaction and workplace injuries and accidents,” said Marlene S. Dines, executive consultant for integrated disability management for Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, Calif.
Kaiser's observation is based on integrated disability management, safety and employee wellness data, Ms. Dines said.
James H. McConville, vice president of group disability product development for MetLife Inc. in Bridgewater, N.J., moderated the session.