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Statistics claim that the current generation of youngsters in developed countries will die younger than their parents. The epidemic of lifestyle diseases – from obesity to diabetes – is afflicting people at increasingly younger ages. But how does that concern you as a business owner or HR professional?

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clearly, diseases and ongoing health complaints come at a cost, and it’s not just the insurance premiums. The financial impact of an unhealthy workforce reverberates through an entire business, increasing costs in even the most unexpected areas. To avoid unnecessary haemorrhaging in your firm’s finances, you must first understand the true impact of this issue. Only then can you start to approach it.

Modern Living Is Zapping Health And Vitality

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The advent of advanced technology, globalisation and changed working styles has had a harsh impact on the general health of workers worldwide. For many the so-called ‘sittosis’ crisis seems to be here to stay.

Work-related stress
It doesn’t take a doctor to tell you that your wellbeing is intrinsically linked to your stress levels. But what you may not know is that work-related stress increases your risk of getting type 2 diabetes by 45%. Especially during such times as the labour paradigm shift that is taking place rapidly, being in the workplace can increase anxiety, depression and unhealthy stress. This increases your risk of getting type 2 diabetes by 45%.

According to the American Psychological Association, numerous workplace factors contribute to this problem, including excessive workloads, low salaries and a lack of engagement. The sweeping globalisation of the working world compounds this disturbing trend. A 2015 study from Universiti Putra Malaysia found that 75% of workers in multinational companies suffered from poor health in general, with stress as the most frequent complaint.

Poor nutrition and binge-eating
Worryingly, nutrition is often at the bottom of the priority list for many professionals. With fast food on the rampage everywhere, it’s easier than ever to rely on junk food that has been meticulously created to reach the so-called ‘bliss-point’ – the perfect balance of fat, salt and/or sugar to cause addiction.  While traditional communities in rural areas used to eat largely simple and largely healthy meals, research has found that people in urban parts areas are relying on food delivery and too many restaurant visits.

What’s more, stress and nutrition are not standalone factors — they’re closely linked. Just last year, the Eating Disorders International Conference found that a high proportion of students in the UAE were likely to binge-eat as a direct result of stress. Doubtless, the same logic can be applied to workers in the region. For many individuals, the more they have on their figurative plates, the more they pile on their literal ones.

An inactive lifestyle
Of course, the so-called miracle cure for many conditions is exercise. But how much are we actually getting? Well, according to the Journal of Obesity, not enough. A recent study of weight and obesity in the eastern Mediterranean region found that 58% of men and a shocking 75% of women in the UAE live ‘sedentary or inactive’ lifestyles.

This change of lifestyle is a direct result of a rapid economic development in the region. The fact that most people drive to work and sit at a desk job for most of the working day means that few of us are as active as we ought to be. The prevalence of new gadgets and technology, such as gaming devices, may also be encouraging people to exercise less. The takeaway is clear: we’re not getting the exercise that our bodies so greatly need.

This Lifestyle Causes Non-Communicable Diseases

When you combine all these lifestyle changes, which have been rife over the last 20 years, it becomes clear why people are becoming less healthy. As an employer, it’s important to be aware of just how the most common non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are affecting your business.

Diabetes
Though diabetes is overlooked by many employers, it can be a real threat to your business. Back in 2007, more than 15% of adults in the UAE had diabetes. Ten years on, that stat has greatly increased thanks to our increasingly unhealthy lifestyles. It’s also worth noting that those most at risk of developing diabetes were men over the age of 50. The more your staff fit this age and gender profile, the more you should consider taking measures to mitigate this growing threat.

Obesity
We are in the midst of a global obesity crisis. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported in 2014 that 38% of men and 39% of women around the world were overweight; and furthermore that 11% of men and 15% of women were obese. At a local level, the situation is even more serious. Shockingly, the UAE is one of the top ten countries in the world for obesity prevalence, caused by inter-related factors such as economic affluence, technological advances, diet, lack of exercise and even climate.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reported in 2014 that 38% of men and 39% of women around the world were overweight; and furthermore that 11% of men and 15% of women were obese.

Hypertension
Commonly referred to as high blood pressure, hypertension is an NCD that is often associated with ongoing stress, and can lead to kidney disease, blindness, strokes, and cardiovascular problems. In Middle Eastern countries, including the UAE, 33% of the population overall suffers from hypertension. That stat is worth repeating: an incredible one in three people is struggling with this problem, even though they may not know it yet.

Heart disease
This condition can be the result of obesity, stress and hypertension. A study published in Global Health Action assessed the UAE’s overall health status and identified the country’s ‘Big Four’ public health issues. It is no great surprise that heart disease was number one on this list. In fact the research suggested that 25% of all fatalities in the region are caused by cardiovascular problems. Every employer should be aware of the impact that this common and deadly NCD may have. 

NCDs Cost Businesses More Than Just Money

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Now that you’re aware of the most common health complaints, let’s take a look at how they affect your company. Often when people talk about NCDs, they focus on their direct and immediate impact. In reality, there’s a whole array of other long-term negative consequences that poor employee health will ultimately have on your business – in terms of time, productivity or, indeed, finances.

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Presenteeism in the workplace
Research from Duke University suggested that the cost of obesity for companies based in the USA is around USD 73 billion each year. On this basis it’s likely that UAE company owners are footing a hefty bill too. The same study suggested that much of this cost was down to ‘presenteeism’, or time lost during working hours, among other factors. For example, employees with NCDs need to take time out during the day to take insulin or other medication.

Reduced job performance
You may also notice that NCDs have an impact on your employees’ productivity levels. These health problems affect almost every area of an individual’s life, including their performance at work, and research studies have found that employees with health issues such as obesity tend to be slower at completing tasks in the workplace. It’s worth understanding that employees who are an unhealthy weight may struggle in a fast-paced environment when they do manage to attend work.

Increased absenteeism
Naturally, NCDs lead to more workplace absences. For example, cardiovascular diseases account for employees taking an average of 4.7 days off each year in the US. On top of this, diabetes globally causes employees to have between 3.6 and 7.3 sick days every year on average. The trend follows through with every NCD you consider. From consultant visits to hospital stays, employees with ongoing health issues need to take more time off.

Rise in premium costs
Due to changing lifestyles and the growing number of unhealthy individuals, the cost of global healthcare insurance is rising. According to a 2016 report from the Economist Intelligence Unitspending in this area is increasing by 5.2% per year, and one of the major reasons for this surge is the prevalence of chronic diseases or NCDs. Since individuals with these kinds of health issues represent a cost burden to insurers, through frequent visits to hospital and surgery costs, the fees often outweigh the policy charges. Hence insurance providers often have no choice but to increase their premiums the following year, to compensate for any losses. 

According to a 2016 report from the Economist Intelligence Unit spending in this area is increasing by 5.2% per year, and one of the major reasons for this surge is the prevalence of chronic diseases or NCDs.

Prevention Is Always Better Than Cure

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So, how can you combat this issue and prevent it from impacting your company? Well, ‘prevent’ is the operative word here. Keeping your staff members healthy and overseeing their well-being is critical. Needless to say, the current state of health in the UAE looks bleak and many business owners and HR professionals simply don’t know where to begin. However, there’s a wealth of help and support available out there, including wellness programmes and other forms of intervention and advice. And it’s your duty as an employer to do whatever you can to tackle these problems head on.

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This article first appeared on LinkedIn, and was written by Simon Stirzaker, Regional Head, Health & Benefits, Al-Futtain Willis. Please visit the Al Futtaim Willis website at www.willis.ae 

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