Nutritionist & Chief Care Officer Span Health
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The taboos we don’t talk about: managing lifestyle conditions in the workplace

Lifestyle conditions are responsible for 70% of deaths worldwide and yet in many workplaces employees don’t feel they can talk about them. It’s time for HR to start the conversation and ensure working environments are inclusive for people suffering in silence.

22nd Sep 2020
Nutritionist & Chief Care Officer Span Health
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Shot of a young businesswoman looking stressed out while working in an office
iStock/Jay Yuno

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), diabetes, obesity, anxiety – these are some of the most common lifestyle conditions that affect millions of people around the globe, including your employees.

Empower employees to thrive mentally and physically through wellbeing benefits that tackle the root cause of lifestyle conditions and their symptoms.

Lifestyle conditions, now rising in risk as a result of the pandemic, typically bring some inconvenient situations for those who suffer from them. These could include a sudden, urgent need to find the nearest bathroom, having to inject insulin, or just the need for a wind-down every so often (and yes, we will spell some more of these out in this article). These are all ‘normal’ parts of your employees’ lives, but we often don’t talk about them, especially not in the work environment.

Why should HR experts break the taboo and start paying attention to lifestyle conditions at workplaces? Well, because these impact both physical and mental health of your employees, resulting in productivity, absenteeism and presenteeism costs.

Potentially fatal consequences

Before we dive deeper into some of the conditions that can seriously affect the way your employees work, let’s look at lifestyle conditions in general. The term itself is relatively common now, but do all HR experts fully understand it?

The phrase 'lifestyle conditions' (otherwise known as non-communicable diseases) is an umbrella term that refers to diseases associated with our daily habits. Recent figures from WHO estimate that lifestyle conditions are responsible for 70% of all deaths worldwide. According to the report, every year, 41 million people die from heart attacks, stroke, cancer, chronic respiratory diseases, diabetes or a mental disorder – that’s a worrying number with a crippling economic impact.

The rise in lifestyle conditions has been driven by a fast-paced, Western style of living – increased consumption of processed food and sugar, smoking, alcohol abuse, the use of antibiotics, pesticides and chemicals, but also sedentary work and increased stress. The latter two are directly related to our working lives.

Four lifestyle conditions that can change your employees’ lives

Diabetes

The common misconception is that diabetes is an uncommon disease that hits old and unhealthy people. This couldn’t be more wrong. In 2019, a total of 463 million people were estimated to be living with diabetes, representing 9.3% of the global adult population (20–79 years). The number is set to rise, which means that potentially 10% of your workforce is suffering from diabetes – and that’s not a figure to be ignored. There are several types of the condition, but gestational, pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes are considered to be lifestyle induced.

What does diabetes mean for your employees? It often results in fatigue and brain fog, which makes it hard to concentrate on tasks, and employees may need to take a rest throughout the day. Peripheral neuropathy can make typing and writing very painful. Frequent urination and incontinence can also cause constant interruptions to workflow, which is particularly challenging in meetings. More serious cases need to deal with insulin doses regularly.

Systematic review showed that those with diabetes have twice as many absent days compared to non-diabetic individuals.

Hypertension

Globally, an estimated 26% of the world’s population (972 million people) has hypertension, i.e. high blood pressure.

According to a report from 2017, of the total cost of cardiovascular diseases (CVD) in the EU, around 53% (€111 billion) is due to health care costs, 26% (€54 billion) to productivity losses and 21% (€45 billion) to the informal care of people with CVD. Let that sink in. It accounted for €54 billion in productivity losses.

For your employees with hypertension, headaches and dizziness make it challenging to concentrate on tasks and communicate with colleagues.

Functional gastrointestinal disorders

A 2020 study showed that 40% of global respondents were suffering from some kind of functional gastrointestinal disorders. These are often hard to diagnose, so many people are left in the lurch with chronic digestive issues.

IBS, the most common example, poses a substantial burden on quality of life and productivity. Of employed patients, 24.3% reported absenteeism and 86.8% reported presenteeism because of their IBS. The likelihood is that you have IBS-caused presenteeism in your company without even realising it.

Individuals with IBS usually suffer from unpredictable bowel movements (constipation and diarrhoea), which often means they have an urgent need to find the nearest bathroom. Some might cringe, but bloating and cramps are also part of the picture. It’s hard to concentrate with intense abdominal pain and it might mean individuals need to leave a meeting to visit the bathroom and pass wind.

Anxiety

Opinium - MRS Workplace Mental wellbeing Audit 2019 showed that 62% of the UK workers struggled with their mental health in the last 12 months.

With over 70 million work days lost each year in the UK due to mental health problems, it is an issue that affects both employers and employees. More than the figures, however, the cost of not understanding employees’ emotional wellbeing can have subtle yet profound effects upon organisational health and success.

Inability to focus on work, excessive self-focus and struggle to socially interact with colleagues, feeling overwhelmed by workload/deadlines and failure to meet demands, forgetfulness, excessive sweating, stomach pain, headaches, nausea – the list is long. These are just some of the common symptoms of anxiety.

Take action

Lifestyle symptoms are inconvenient, painful and most importantly personal. Give employees the privacy, sensitivity and trust they need to discuss their health issues.

Educate line managers on creating open relationships and building trust. Anonymous consultations should be in place both internally and externally. By signing internal ‘advocates’ you will show the importance of the topic and also allow employers to seek guidance on work adjustments needed for their conditions. External chats with clinicians through telehealth providers can help employees resolve their issues or minimise symptoms.

Monitor and incorporate wellness check-ins with employees – show that you care but also work with data. Use quantitative data reported from managers across the organisation to identify if particular areas experience more stress or anxiety.

Empower employees to thrive mentally and physically through wellbeing benefits that tackle the root cause of lifestyle conditions and their symptoms.

Raise awareness, open discussion and discourage presenteeism and leaveism. ‘I didn’t think my employer would understand’ is why 25% of UK employees with mental health issues don’t take time off for self-care. Employers should offer employees flexible and remote working so they can act when their symptoms flare-up.

Lifestyle conditions are not just an HR issue

We could carry on naming other conditions from the lifestyle category – including obesity, polycystic ovary syndrome, Alzheimer's disease and even certain types of cancer. The rising numbers are worrying, and not only for those employers who want to create a generally nice working environment.

On average, presenteeism costs businesses £605 per person each year. CFOs and HR directors should do their maths, look at absenteeism, investigate presenteeism and start taking actions – lower numbers caused by lifestyle conditions, increase productivity and attract talent.  

Where should HR teams start? The challenge is that one in three people will not discuss their long-term health condition with their employer. Start with building a healthy, supportive culture. Create curiosity that will lead your employees to open up and look after their health, rather than suffer in silence. Both your employees and finance officers will thank you later.

Interested in this topic? Read Wellbeing at work: why we need a more human-centred workplace.

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