Executive health Do Something! You’re not as healthy as you think

We’re not, it seems, well lot.
About half New Zealand’s population is too plump, one in five is obese and the same proportion has high blood pressure. Then there are the arthritis sufferers (one in three), those inflicted with back pain (another third), the 120,000 or so diabetics and the estimated 40 percent of mid-forties plus men and mid-fifties plus women regarded by the National Heart Foundation as potential and looming “heart event” candidates.
To this rather depressing health snapshot add problematic extras such as the emotional stress caused by balancing demanding work loads with family needs or the physical toll extracted by hours hunched over hot keyboard.
For the country’s workplaces shoddy health represents substantial dent in productivity. Although there’s little local research to measure the exact size of the dent so far, studies by Southern Cross’ Healthworks division suggest employee ill-health and injury devour up to 15 percent of company profits and cost New Zealand businesses an estimated $3 billion every year. They say the direct impact of absenteeism due to illness and injury is 4-12 percent of the payroll and the indirect cost is closer to 20 percent.
While recent amendments to the Health and Safety in Employment legislation have helped boost growing awareness of stress-related health tolls, most of us peer at the state of our personal health through rose-hued spectacles.
When the National Health Survey recently delivered New Zealand’s rather sickly health snapshot as outlined above, it also found that 90 percent of us think we are in good or excellent health. very similar profile emerged from studies of the workforce done at New Zealand Post, one company that is now taking systematic approach to improving employee health status (see Healthy choices).
Kim Harvey, director of recently re-christened Ignite – formerly Corporate Wellness Systems – isn’t surprised by the gap between self-health perceptions and reality because, as she says, “I’m out there testing all the time. People don’t, for instance, know they have high blood pressure unless they’re tested and that is where lot of heart disease begins.”
Companies can be equally oblivious to the impacts of employee ill health. Few measure either the costs or causes of absenteeism, says Harvey. But that could be changing.
Like other providers of corporate health services, and there is growing number of them, she says demand is increasing. More organisations are now checking the collective employee pulse and offering health benefits that range from nutrition workshops or ‘flu jabs to gym membership or stress counselling.
Companies are increasingly more inclined to offer employee benefits such as health insurance, not necessarily for altruistic reasons but because competition for skilled people is keener. Anecdotal evidence suggests senior executives must be offered health benefits to compete with the Australian market, says Mike Hablous, Tower Health’s national manager for group risk. There is, he believes, “general trend back to companies reintroducing or extending employee benefits such as medical insurance or superannuation”.
On the need to attract good employees he suggests companies offer health schemes “simply because their definition of being good employer includes the provision of such benefits. And some organisations do it as part of their risk management strategy. We’ve certainly experienced quite lot of growth and interest.”
Changes to the HSE legislation last year helped raise company awareness of corporate health issues but the growth spurt (in health services) started three years ago, according to Body Corporate director Karen Beard who’s been running health education programmes for decade or more.
It is hardly surprising that corporate health has become growth business opportunity. Our world is, after all, increasingly dominated by sedentary work, habitat where technology delivers speed, efficiency and an increasingly stressful information overload, and fraught because work skills are in short supply and many individuals work longer hours while simultaneously lusting for more “lifestyle” balance.
Companies are increasingly held responsible for employee health. If they don’t do it voluntarily then bureaucrats will deliver it legislatively. But more organisations are also aware of the business benefits that accrue from maintaining healthy workforce.

Health’s ROI
Beard’s company insists on putting some “return on investment” measures in place and says returns for each dollar invested in corporate wellness initiatives range from minimum of $5 to maximum of $25 with an average return of around $18. She uses both tangible and intangible measures such as totting up sick leave hours and measuring staff attrition rates or recruitment costs. Soft measures are, she concedes, little harder to quantify but range from improved employee morale to increased creativity. Some evidence that “your employer seems to give damn” about your personal wellbeing can have positive impact on productivity, attitude and loyalty.
Corporate wellness programmes don’t relieve companies of their legal obligations to minimise causes of stress in the workplace. Providing discounted gym membership becomes tad meaningless if overlong working hours circumscribe its use.
Companies can’t dictate an individual’s diet, or force employees to take up jogging. What they can do is highlight potentially problematic health issues for individuals and provide them with the tools and information they need to take personal responsibility. Healthworks says employees frequently discover they have serious illness after participating in corporate health check.
Southern Cross Group chief executive Ian McPherson reckons companies should think about opening the door to “house calls” by GPs because more employees take the opportunity to participate in on-site health checks than off-site ones. Few New Zealand men in the 35-55 age group regularly visit their GP. This is, however, the age bracket in which middle-age diseases often start to take hold. Our aging workforce makes such statistics even more relevant.

Healthy choices
Look at the health profile of the nation and that of NZ Post’s workforce, and they are remarkably similar. NZ Post has so far tested around 600 employees as part of its health risk assessment pilot programme. It found similar proportion of health risk and similar levels of obliviousness to risk. While 44 percent of those tested were overweight and quarter turned out to have two or more risk factors for heart disease, whopping 95 percent think they’re in pretty good nick.
The company’s programme is based on self responsibility, says NZ Post’s Wellness Programme coordinator Suzie Pearce. “The philosophy is around raising people’s awareness of what is healthy choice and giving them the information and knowledge to make that choice.” But it is not simply case of presenting seminar and leaving employees to it. There is follow up to help change bad habits. The nutrition programme, for instance, involves looking at an individual’s diet, taking food records, assessing workload and fatigue levels, then setting some goals.
NZ Post is also measuring the benefits of its programme. To put some grunt into baseline data, Pearce has run some correlations between individual health data and absenteeism. Not surprisingly it turned out that those who had the highest number of health risk factors also took the most time off. For all NZ Post employees over an 18-month period to June 03, 11 percent of employees contributed to approximately 40 percent of health-related absenteeism.
That was echoed in the health risk pilot population where 10 percent of people accounted for 40 percent of paid and unpaid sick leave. look at the health profile of this 10 percent found more than two thirds were overweight, 13 percent smoke, 23 percent have high blood pressure (mostly untreated), more than third have thre

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