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Work with employers to improve health

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Annual profits confirm whether the staff of a company performed well. Profit margins, and the rate of innovation, closely reflect the health of the people who deliver that success. Employers are, and perhaps always have been, a key partner in the drive to improve the health of the nation. What has become a greater imperative to forge a partnership is the threat to profit margins from the looming spectre of chronic illness in epidemic proportions. Work is a vitally important aspect in most of our lives:

The average working American spends the majority of his or her waking hours on the job. Some of us live and breathe our work. Others of us work to pay our mortgages. Either way, the workplace has become an important source of social capital for millions of Americans – a center of meaning, membership, and mutual support. More than ever, we find our close friends and life partners on the job, we serve our communities through work-organized programs, and we use the office as a forum for democratic deliberation with people different from ourselves. Countless studies show that a workplace with strong social capital enhances workers’ lives and improves the employer’s bottom line.The workplace and social capital.

Similarly in Australia people spend most of their waking time at work. On average 34 hours a week . Sixteen percent of us work more than 50 hours per week. In contrast we spend 6-9 hours  per week doing house work and 6 hours and twenty seven minutes per day asleep. The impact of the working environment on health ranges from physical to psychological and can be both harmful and beneficial. Employers in most developed countries are therefore legally obliged to provide:

  • safe premises
  • safe machinery and materials
  • safe systems of work
  • information, instruction, training and supervision
  • a suitable working environment and facilities.

However there is much more that can be done to optimise the health of employees. The economic argument for this is clear and closely related to the rising incidence of chronic and complex illness among the working population. In 2002 approximately 59 per cent of global death was attributable to chronic, non-communicable diseases and the toll is projected to increase to 66 per cent by 2030.  The other outcomes that should worry employers is the prospect of premature retirement from the workforce.

It was found that individuals who had retired early due to other reasons were significantly less likely to be in income poverty than those retired due to ill health (OR 0.43 95% CI 0.33 to 0.51), and there was no significant difference in the likelihood of being in income poverty between these individuals and those unemployed. Being in the same family as someone who is retired due to illness also significantly increases an individual’s chance of being in income poverty. Schofield et al

A report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare in 2009 outlined the consequences of chronic illness and early retirement on the entire Australian economy. It concludes that:

  • People with chronic disease had, on average, 0.48 days off work in the previous fortnight due to their own illness, compared with 0.25 days for those without chronic disease.
  • The annual loss in workforce participation from chronic disease in Australia was around 537,000 person-years of participation in full-time employment, and approximately 47,000 person years of part-time employment.
  • For people participating full-time in the labour force, there was a loss of approximately 367,000 person-years associated with chronic disease, approximately 57,000 person-years in absenteeism associated with chronic disease and 113,000 person-years were lost due to death from chronic disease.
  •  Estimates of loss do not take into account lower performance while at work. Similarly, the effect of loss from participation in the unpaid labour force (carers, parents and volunteers) has not been accounted for. The estimates, therefore, underestimate the loss in workforce participation associated with chronic disease.

Therefore employers who wish to retain an effective workforce, and by corollary their profitability, need to invest in the well being of their workers. This responsibility extends beyond ensuring the physical safety of their workforce. A workforce that is under threat from an ageing population and an alarming incidence of retirement through ill health. If employees spend most of their waking hours at work then the following might concern the employer (click the links for the literature):

I believe health innovators who address these issues in their dealings with industry will discover an open door with massive potential for mutual benefit.

Picture by Vase Petrovski

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