Chronic diseases and impacts on productivity in the workplace

It took three distinguished experts in their field to discuss the issue of the impact of chronic non-communicable diseases on workplace productivity and the corporate bottom line at the recent Healthcare 20/20 conference. The Journal was there to hear more about this important issue facing all sizes of businesses, each and every day.

Dr. Jean Marie Rwangabwoba, from the Pan American Health Organisation, began the presentation with a look at non-communicable diseases such as cancer, asthma, diabetes and high blood pressure and their growing impact on the world’s health.

Back in the 70s, he said, communicable diseases were common place but, with strides in modern healthcare, doctors have seen a reduction in communicable diseases, but a simultaneous increase in non-communicable diseases.

In 2005, for example, the estimated number of people who died from NCDs was around 58 million. Most importantly, almost half the deaths were in people younger than 70, including children and people in the prime of their life, the doctor said.

The main cause of death among NCD patients was heart disease, followed by cancer, diabetes and then stroke.

“We need to appreciate the magnitude facing us when it comes to NCDs as opposed to infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS,” Rwangabwoba said. “It would be a mistake to ignore these major killers.”

With proper public healthcare policies in place, NCDs can be prevented, the doctor said. “Lifestyles can change and environmental issues, which can cause NCDs can be addressed,” he said.

Hypertension, for example, was the most common cause of death and disability in the Caribbean region, the doctor said. High blood pressure (i.e. a reading above 115/75) was caused by a variety of environmental and lifestyle issues which could be amended, such as too much salt in the diet, too little fresh fruits and vegetables, too little exercise and excessive consumption of alcohol.

Rwangabwoba said targeting the food industry, for example posting food facts in fast food restaurants, as well as setting up countrywide blood pressure screening were good ways to begin to tackle the issue. Targetting tobacco consumption was another area on which governments should be focusing, by increasing the cost of tobacco and tobacco products, installing a ban on the advertisement of tobacco and restricting public smoking.

“Intersectional collaboration, between the public sector, media and private sector needs to take place in this respect,” he said. “A good example of this is the Healthy Lifestyle Project that took place in Jamaica in 2004.”

Establishing workplace wellness programmes that focus on NCDs as well as HIV/Aids was a good move, according to the doctor. “If the corporations want people to come and work for them they need to ensure that people are healthy and able,” he commented.

Rwangabwoba highlighted different ways that this objective could be achieved, including ensuring that workplaces were 100 per cent smoke free, making blood pressure monitors available within the workplace, ensuring that the food and snacks that were available to workers were healthy and nutritious and offering gym memberships to staff (this last suggestion received a round of applause from the audience).

“We need to give workers incentives to engage in healthy behaviour,” he said. “This could be in the form of health education classes, wellness messages, warning signs etc.”

Another key to such a programme’s success would be the buy-in from management, to ensure support was given from the top down within any organisation.

“Corporations need to have a health promotion team championing the cause,” he confirmed. “They should have strong links with human resources. There needs to be effective planning and effective targeting of high risk individuals.”

Rwangabwoba also urged businesses to negotiate with health insurance providers to ensure that workers received coverage of preventative services. 
Since 2008, a day in September has been marked as Caribbean Wellness Day and the doctor urged all countries to participate. Topics under the microscope during these wellness days have included tobacco, nutrition and blood pressure – what the doctor termed the silent killer.

He ended his presentation by encouraging everyone to get out and exercise together so that individuals did not feel that they had to fight obesity in isolation. “We have to use our environment to our advantage,” he said. “Let’s do this together.”