Hoping to save more lives from heart disease and stroke, the American Heart Association is ramping up to change the environment where Americans spend most of their time: The workplace.
“Workplace health is at the forefront of a lot of what we do,” said Yara El-Sayed, executive director of the AHA in Houston. “It’s really a drastic shift.”
El-Sayed said a new sense of urgency around workplace health arose when the nonprofit realized it wouldn’t hit its 2020 goal of reducing death and disability from heart disease and stroke by 20 percent across the United States.
“Unfortunately, we are tracking probably at about 4 to 6 percent right now,” El-Sayed said.
Targeting workplace health programs more aggressively than before is one part of the AHA’s strategy to make an even bigger dent in reducing the number of heart disease–related deaths and disabilities. The organization is also hoping to effect change on an even more macro level by nationally supporting legislation to tax sugary drinks and to raise the minimum age to buy tobacco to 21.
The AHA’s heightened efforts to improve workplace wellness are of particular importance to Houston and San Antonio, as both cities have populations that struggle significantly with obesity, a risk factor for heart disease — which is the leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A key focus for the AHA’s Houston office has been its Check Change Control tool, which employees can use to monitor and manage their blood pressure. The American Heart Association says that almost 28 percent of deaths in the Houston area each year can be attributed to heart disease.
Check Change Control was one of the first tools that Houston-based Harvey Builders used as it crafted its wellness program last year.
“We are in the construction business; our employees work many hours, and they work under stress, so we were concerned about their health,” said Joe Cleary Jr., president of the general contracting firm.
Cleary said the company placed blood-pressure monitors in its offices and on its job sites, after which employees over several weeks voluntarily took their readings and logged them into an online portal for tracking and feedback from the AHA. If an employee’s blood pressure was higher than normal, the portal would offer recommendations for lowering it.
“About  of our 700 employees tracked their blood pressure, and initially, more than 50 percent of these employees started out with some kind of hypertension,” Cleary said. “By the end, 80 percent of those same employees had reduced their blood pressure. It was fabulous.”
Although clearly a positive for employees, programs that reduce their workers’ blood pressure are also good for employers. High blood pressure, along with diabetes, is one of the 10 costliest health conditions for employers, according to the AHA’s statistics.
One of the newest tools in the AHA’s workplace wellness arsenal is its “Workplace Health Achievement Index,” which is a scored self-assessment that companies can use to gauge the success of an existing workplace wellness program — with a focus on heart health. Once the assessment is completed, companies receive a benchmark report showing how they stack up against peer companies; if they’re eligible, they will receive bronze, silver or gold recognition.
Though many companies are attracted to the bragging rights that come with the recognition, the real point of the index is to get companies thinking about how they can better promote a culture of health and well-being.
Jennifer Meachum, senior community impact director of the AHA’s San Antonio office, said that six San Antonio–area workplaces used the index last year, including Windcrest–based cloud-computing company Rackspace and the Bexar County seat in San Antonio.
Because Rackspace and the county both already have comprehensive programs in place — in addition to several of the AHA’s programs, they offer boxing, yoga, boot camps, massages, and more — both received bronze recognition.
“It’s a good reminder of how we’re doing in terms of wellness in the workplace,” said Roxanne Leal, a wellness coordinator at Bexar County.
Daniel Bahr, a health operations manager at Rackspace, echoed that sentiment, adding that his company hoped to take a closer look at its assessment to see how it could implement subsequent changes this year.
“We would like to make it a goal for this year,” Bahr said.
Meachum expects and hopes engagement with the index to be higher this year. The San Antonio Chamber of Commerce has thrown its support behind the American Heart Association’s index and its suite of workplace wellness tools, with the goal of helping the city shed pounds — along with its reputation as one of the “Fattest Cities in America,” a title Chamber Chairman James Weaver said was bad for business, according to the San Antonio Express-News.
If the partnership goes well, Meachum says, it could serve as an example to other chambers of commerce across the country hoping to make similar changes.