EXECUTIVE HEALTH : Killers and Cures – Healthy minds in healthy corporate bodies

New Zealanders may embrace this country’s young, sporty, outdoors image – but the sad reality is that as population we’re getting older, fatter and increasingly sedentary.
Along with the inhabitants of most developed nations, our age demographic is shifting relentlessly upward. Already almost half of New Zealand’s workforce is over the age of 40 and, as the NZ Institute for Research on Aging notes, this trend will continue as smaller cohorts follow the baby boom bulge through the workforce.
Although age doesn’t have to be associated with ill-health, older people inevitably carry bigger share (an estimated 44 percent) of the disease burden in this country. While the tweens, teens and 20s are more prone to accidental death, age brings greater susceptibility to New Zealand’s top three killer diseases – cancer, heart problems and stroke.
According to the University of Otago’s Injury Prevention Research Unit, the majority of deaths occurring between the ages of five and 35 can be attributed to “unintentional” causes, followed by cancer and suicide. But from 35 to 65, the most likely cause of death is cancer followed by circulatory disease with the latter taking over as prime killer of the over 65s.
Also creeping steadily up the list of killers is diabetes which is now reaching epidemic proportions in most ‘western’ countries. Here, by the age of 70, it already affects one in 10 of New Zealand’s European population and significant 20 percent of our Pacific Island people. Medical researchers are warning its incidence is predicted to double by 2020 and that its sufferers are getting younger. By 2021 the cost of treating type 2 diabetes and associated complications (eg, blindness, renal failure and limb amputation) is predicted to reach $1 billion – four times its cost in 2001-02.
Respiratory problems are also high on the morbidity listing, accounting for 17.4 percent of New Zealand deaths in 2001. Asthma affects one in six New Zealanders and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is becoming an increasing problem here and globally. According to the World Health Organisation, COPD, which results in progressive destruction of lung tissue, is projected to be the third leading cause of death by 2020. Increased air pollution is implicated in this – as is smoking.
A contributory factor causing concern for those monitoring Kiwi health is our expanding girths. New Zealand is ranked seventh on the latest OECD list of the world’s fattest countries. Just over one fifth of the population is classified as obese – which makes them even more susceptible to such killer conditions as cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes.
Health pundits predict that cutting the incidence of obesity in the population to half its current rate would translate to 10 percent fewer people living with diabetes in 2011 than currently projected – not to mention the impact on cardiovascular disease or stroke.
Obesity is perhaps the most obvious outward sign of population that is increasingly sedentary at work and at home. Desk-bound work, passive entertainment and car dependence all impact on general levels of fitness – both of body and mind. Obesity is associated with reduced energy levels, greater susceptibility to stress or depression and contributes to some of the musculo-skeletal problems that often plague older workers.
Balancing the demands of work and family doesn’t leave lot of time for exercise, and fast-paced lifestyles lend themselves to greater dependence on fast (usually fattier) foods as well as excesses of caffeine, alcohol or designer drugs.
A 2004 Ministry of Health study which identified the top 20 causes of death in New Zealand by risk factor as well as by health condition found that diet and insufficient exercise were responsible for an estimated 3200 deaths in 1997 – almost 40 percent of all deaths in that year.
Associated biological culprits included elevated blood cholesterol, high blood pressure and elevated body mass index (BMI). In terms of environmental risks, air pollution was implicated in 970 deaths while occupational diseases and injury accounted for around 190 deaths.
Such statistics, along with chronic skill shortages, are prompting more and more companies to step up their health programmes.

Workplaces step up – and out
There is greater sense of urgency for workplaces to take more responsibility for staff health, says Peter Tynan, chief operational officer for Southern Cross. Age is definitely factor.
“One of the interesting backdrops to this is that while overall unemployment is low in New Zealand at the moment, it is at its absolute lowest in the more mature age groups. So in the over-60 category, the unemployment rate is lower than it’s ever been. In other words, the most competition for skills is in an age group that most needs and values good health – they’re no longer 29 and bullet proof.”
A tight labour market has already made organisations more conscious of the need to hang onto staff which means providing an environment they’re not keen to leave – and wellness programmes are increasingly part of the good employer’s toolkit.
Employees are starting to expect it – particularly if they’re globally mobile, says Tynan.
“There’s bit of global pressure – particularly where the immigrant workforce is higher than it used to be. If they come from somewhere like the US where wellness programmes are more common, they expect employers to have them. So the background to this is one of pretty intense competition for shrinking talent pool.”
That’s prompting companies to become more egalitarian about their health programmes, says Azion director Kim Harvey.
“Where organisations were very focused on executive health management and health risk management, they’ve now realised that productivity gains can be had in every part of the business – that healthier, happier people are more productive. So the trend is to introduce programmes that involve everyone – it’s about people feeling valued and wanting to stay with the company.”
It’s not that hard or expensive to develop wellness programme and the most effective are those that actively engage staff participation.
“All our clients start with 10-week activity programme that involves team challenges because that creates competition, and generates lot of buzz and hype in the workplace so people work together and egg each other on,” says Harvey.
“People get fitter without even realising it – and that not only reduces people’s health-risk factors but helps them manage stress. The fitter you are, the more resilient you are from all sorts of perspectives, but how you do it is critically important – you have to get people engaged,” says Harvey.
Instead of taking ‘buy and hope’ approach to corporate health initiatives, companies need to include these as part of their internal branding – giving staff greater sense of ownership, says Brad Norris, director of Christchurch-based Synergy Health.
“To achieve the best return on investment, businesses need to be more strategic in designing customised wellness programme. Part of the initial design process involves planning how to get employee buy-in which is critical for the long-term success of any wellness programme.”
Avoid the impulse to “fragment” buy, warns Tynan.
“For example, it’s not enough to subsidise gym programmes – people don’t take them up because they’re subsidised, they tend to substitute for one they’re already paying. It’s more about doing smaller things on more consistent basis and getting people engaged. The chances of success are that much greater.”
Health programmes don’t have to involve big investment, he adds. Walking challenges are not expensive to run and can be fun.
North Shore City introduced 10,000 steps challenge as part of its overall approach to staff wellbeing along with various other initiatives such as encouraging staff to walk, bike or use public transport to get to work. HR manager Glenn Harris says it was introdu

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