Poor lifestyle choices made during a year of lockdowns mean employers now need to take action to reduce the risk of workers developing preventable diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease, says Dr Sandeep Singh Sadhra.
Although many people used the novelty of working from home during the first lockdown to spend more time outdoors, the winter lockdown had a particularly negative impact on the health of the nation. Gym closures and a hold on organised sport meant one in three people became less active and gained weight.
At the same time, increased snacking and alcohol consumption contributed to an average weight gain of 10lbs (4.5kg) per person. This increased the risk of employees developing non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as diabetes, cancer, strokes and coronary heart disease.
With researchers finding that pressure on frontline services meant people were less likely to see their GP and get referred for checks. As a result, a quarter of diabetes cases were missed last year.
Unlike an obvious physical health problem like an injury, NCDs may have subtle or even no symptoms in their early stages with blood testing often required to detect any signs of abnormality. The only way to detect diabetes and high cholesterol, for example, is to take a blood sample such as a simple finger-prick blood test.
Although GPs offer blood tests, most people will not ask for them until they become noticeably sick. In the past, this prompted many employers to offer free health assessments as part of their employee wellbeing packages or wellbeing days. However, with many people still working from home, most employers haven’t taken stock of the health of their workforce in over a year.
Instead of allowing things to slide any further, postal blood-testing services and guided self-assessments are fast becoming a cost-effective way for employers to identify how many of their employees have already developed, or are at risk of developing an NCD.
Act on Risk Factors:
Identifying the number of your workers who are vulnerable to an NCD helps to inform your wellbeing plans and risk factors are also crucial for motivating employees to take preventative action.
Generic information on the health benefits of eating healthily or not smoking are all well and good, however they are nowhere near as powerful as telling someone that: “According to your blood test results, past medical history and family history, there is a significant risk you’ll have a heart attack in the next 10 years.”
So, as well as telling people what their health risks are, they should also be given the opportunity to contemplate what this means for them personally as well as being provided with support to make positive those changes.
When it comes to helping people make positive lifestyle changes, it is important not to make any assumptions about how much they know about what they can do to boost their health. Most people are worryingly confused about how they can reduce specific health risks.
For example, what constitutes a healthy diet is very different for heart disease than it is for diabetes. Heart disease is about reducing saturated and trans-fats, while diabetes is about reducing carbohydrate intake and high-sugar content foods or drinks. Also, if someone has problems with their heart, they may not be able to immediately start following the current recommended guidance on how many minutes of moderate to strenuous exercise we should be performing per week. They would likely require a more graded introduction to physical activity, to avoid perilously overstraining themselves.
All of which means people must be guided towards the support and information tailored specifically for themselves. Online courses, expert webinars and wellbeing apps provide plenty of opportunity for people to access expert insights on getting their health back on track.
Create a Culture of Health
The next most important thing employers can do is to ensure people have time to look after themselves. People are highly motivated by short-term goals, meaning they are often prepared to strive to work late to get that extra task done today, in an effort to reduce tomorrow’s workload.
Not only will this potentially fail to lighten tomorrow’s workload, as this may just create space for new tasks to be allocated or accomplished, but if this is continuously repeated, this is likely to reduce the amount of time allocated in evenings or lunch hour to exercise or prepare healthy food on a regular basis. Which will inevitably result in an adverse effect on their health.
This is not just bad for individuals, it is also bad for business. After all, a major study found that as well as experiencing less absence, healthy workplaces also save an average of 11.5 days of unproductive time per person a year.
So encourage employees to set long-term wellbeing goals and factor time for wellbeing into their daily lives, in the same way they diarise meetings. For example, provided they don’t need to work core hours, encourage them to flex their day to fit in that yoga class or an invigorating walk before work.
To view on Personnel Today: Helping employers to reduce preventable disease post pandemic – Personnel Today
Article written by: Dr Sandeep Singh Sadhra, practising GP and Medical Director for ToHealth