Help employees avoid preventable diseases

Poor lifestyle choices mean employees now need help to reduce their risk of developing diabetes, heart disease and stroke, says Dr Sandeep Singh Sadhra.

As a practising GP, it came as no surprise to learn that one in three people gained weight and reduced their physical activity during the last lockdown. Homeworking, gym closures and a hold on organised sports meant people had fewer reasons to stay active in the colder months.

At the same time, increased snacking and alcohol consumption for many contributed to an average weight gain of 10lbs per person. Increasing the risk of employees developing non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as diabetes, cancer, stroke and coronary heart disease.

Unlike an obvious physical health problem like an injury, these diseases may have subtle to no symptoms in their early stages. Blood testing is often required to detect any signs of abnormality. However, pressure on frontline healthcare services meant 1 in 4 type 2 diabetes cases went undiagnosed last year.

All of which means employers now have a valuable role to play when it comes to helping employees back to health. Here are four ways to help them before the risk in NCDs translates into increased absence and insurance costs.

Four ways to help your people back to health

1. Take stock of the situation

NCDs usually cause little to no symptoms in their early stages. The only way to detect diabetes and high cholesterol, for example, is to conduct a simple finger-prick blood test.

Although we GPs offer these services, most people won’t ask for them until they become noticeably sick. In the past, many employers offered free health assessments as part of their employee benefits package or wellbeing days. However, with people working from home, many employers haven’t taken stock of workforce health in over a year.

Instead of allowing things to slide any further, postal blood-testing services and guided self-assessments have become cost-effective ways of helping employees assess their health. At the same time, they identify the prevalence of risk factors across your workforce.

2. Motivate people to get healthy

After a challenging year, many people are feeling exhausted, experiencing low mood and lacking the motivation to take steps to improve their health.

This means providing employees with generic information on the health benefits of not smoking or eating well, isn’t likely to have that much impact. We mostly know what we should be doing to stay healthy but faced with the option of cooking a nutritious meal or grabbing a pizza when we are tired, the pizza usually wins the day.

Instead, people need a personally compelling reason to priortise their health. For example, it’s far more meaningful to be told: “According to your blood test results and medical history, there’s a significant risk you’ll have a heart attack in the next 10 years,” than it is to be told “Too many trans fats can increase your risk of heart attack.” Which is why it’s so important to translate health assessment findings into personally meaningful feedback. Then give people the support they need to make the changes needed.

3. Provide the right education

Many people are worryingly confused about what they can do to boost their health. A classic misconception I hear frequently is that eating a low cholesterol margarine will bring down their cholesterol. Yes, if they have a good diet and replace some saturated fat intake this can help. However, if they’re replacing a tub of butter a day with a tub of margarine a day this can do more harm than good.

Similarly, what constitutes a healthy diet is very different for heart disease and 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 issues with their heart, they may not be able to immediately launch into following the government’s recommended guidelines on moderate to strenuous exercise. They would likely require a more graded introduction to physical activity, to try and avoid overstraining themselves.

All of which means people must be guided towards the support and information they personally need. Online courses, expert webinars and wellbeing apps provide plenty of opportunity for people to access expert insights on getting their health back on track.

4. Create a culture of health

The UK has an overwork culture, with employees putting in some of the longest hours in Europe, despite being the least productive. People typically work through their lunch or late into the evening or at the weekends. They fail to take holiday and clock off even when they’re feeling unwell. Even though they know this can make them sluggish and unproductive.

A major reason for doing this is that in the short term, hitting that deadline or getting that extra task done makes them feel good. So, given a choice between spending an extra hour at their desk to lighten tomorrow’s workload or using that hour to exercise, most people will choose to work that extra hour to the detriment of their health.

To create a culture of health, help people set long-term wellbeing goals. Then factor time for wellbeing into their daily lives, in the same way they diarise meetings. If employees don’t need to work core hours, allow them to flex their time so they can make that yoga class or go for a run or walk before work. Although it might feel like employees are working less initially, it will save time in the long run, as healthy workplaces not only experience less absence but also save an average of 11.5 days of unproductive time per person a year.

Dr Sandeep Singh Sadhra is a practising GP and Medical Director for ToHealth.

New Service: Online Health Assessments

ToHealth now provides online health assessments. Employees can complete finger prick blood tests and questionnaires in the comfort of their own home. Results can then be discussed via an hour-long video consultation with a GP, or lifestyle coach. With the option to provide those at risk with access to a 12-week course on reducing major health risks, such as diabetes, cholesterol or heart disease.

Find out more