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4 January 2016

Duty of care: why improving the health of our nation continues at the workplace

Healthcare isn’t just the responsibility of the NHS. Employers also have an important role to play – and new technologies are on hand to help. 

By Becky Slack

The average Brit spends more than 128,000 hours at work over the course of their lifetime. While the majority of workplaces are safe, secure places (the number of fatal and non-fatal injuries has declined considerably over the years), health and wellbeing remains a central issue thanks to increased pressure and stress, long, irregular hours, and discriminatory practices – not to mention more sedentary roles and poor ergonomics.

This is a problem both to business and to the NHS. “Workplace health is a significant public health issue,” says the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), which has been actively promoting the benefits of health and wellbeing to the workplace. “Each year more than a million working people in the UK experience a work-related illness. This leads to around 27 million lost working days costing the economy an estimated £13.4 billion.”

For the NHS, poor workplace health is a major contributory factor to the rising numbers of people needing health services to address conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Sedentary, desk-based roles, for example, are believed to have contributed to rising levels of obesity, which in turn cost the NHS £5.1bn in 2008, according to NICE figures. Overall, the economic costs of obesity to the economy rose eightfold between 1998 and 2007 from £479.3m to £42bn.

We also know that health and wellbeing of employees contributes to productivity. The Health, Wellbeing and Productivity in the Workplace report by RAND Europe and the University of Cambridge in May 2015 showed that stress-related issues and musculoskeletal conditions were among the many conditions causing staff to take days off, or to come into work when sick (also known as presenteeism), costing the economy an estimated £6.5bn each year.

The same trends can be found across the NHS itself. Estimates from Public Health England put the cost to the NHS of staff absence due to poor health at £2.4bn a year – accounting for around £1 in every £40 of the total budget. This figure is before the cost of agency staff to fill in gaps, as well as the cost of treatment, is taken into account. Again, mental health and musculoskeletal problems were the two biggest causes of sickness absence.

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With the UK productivity levels lagging behind most of the G7, it would therefore appear that improved health and wellbeing can also have benefits to the wider economy as well as the NHS and the individual.

While most people know what they need to do to improve their health, they often lack the motivation to make the necessary changes. Employers have a unique opportunity to help in this regard – by understanding the health risk factors affecting their organisation and taking steps to address them they can contribute to improved health and wellbeing of our nation overall. Indeed, the 2015 Philips report,A Picture of Health, found that 22 per cent of Brits expect employers to take a lead role in ensuring the health and wellbeing of their staff.

In recognition that optimal health is linked to optimal performance (and therefore competitive advantage), many firms are beginning to install the use and monitoring of new technologies that help track the wellbeing of their staff, particularly in relation to some key areas: sleep; diet and fitness; and stress.

A healthy workforce is a productive workforce

Margaret Thatcher famously said she survived on just four hours of sleep a night, but that probably isn’t something that other workers should try and live up to themselves. Research has shown that lack of sleep is just as bad for the body as alcohol, contributing to obesity, type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease; and is central to low productivity within firms.

To address this, a number of tech companies have developed apps and digital products that help improve an individual’s sleep.SleepBot is one such example, which offers a suite of tracking and analysis tools aimed at helping people get the sleep they need. Similarly, Philips DreamMapper app and web-based software – due for launch in the UK in spring 2016 – is designed to help people suffering from sleep apnea monitor their progress. The Philips Wake-Up Light is another tool – its light gradually increases for 30 minutes before the set alarm time to signal to the body that it is time to move from sleep to waking, something that is proven to help people feel more energised and positive.

Physical inactivity kills more than three million people a year, making it the fourth leading risk factor for death, according to the World Health Organisation.While it can be counter-intuitive to a business owner to encourage staff to take regular breaks instead of working solidly, exercise has been proven to help reduce stress, boost energy, and improve verbal memory, learning and emotions. Employers are beginning to take note of this – in Turkey, for example, public sector workers are allowed to come in to work an hour later, provided they use that time for exercise.

There is a whole host of technologies that employers can use to motivate and measure activity levels. Fitbits, the Nike+ Fuel Band, and other wearable tools are the most obvious solution, while Evo, a free Chrome and Firefox plug-in, prompts users to take frequent breaks by causing computer screens to go black at regular intervals. Meanwhile, apps such as MyFitnessPal or Samsung’s S Health tracker, aim to tackle obesity by offer calorie counting, nutrition information, food diaries and more. This information can then be shared with friends and colleagues who can offer support and encouragement to those trying to lose weight and maintain a healthier diet.

Taking this a step further is the Smart Desk. While Woody Allen may have been on to something when he came up with “The Execu-ciser” in his 1971 movie Bananas, his invention was perhaps a little to chaotic and demanding on the worker. Instead, the concept has been refined and reinvented for the modern world with today’s Smart Desks notifying workers when they have been sedentary for too long, adjusting their height to encourage movement and better posture, and will even order healthy lunches on their behalf.

Having the right kind of tools available can also support wider wellbeing in the workplace – from protecting employees’ vision through to improving their mood. For example, staring at screens all day, poor lighting, small fonts and bad posture can all contribute towards straining our vision and depleting our energy. Employers can help address this by providing computer glasses, such as those by Gunnar Optiks, which filter out artificial light, improve image contrast and reduce fatigue caused by reflected rays, or by improving lighting. The Philips EnergyUp, for example, uses white or blue light, to fight low energy levels and fatigue.

Taking the physical wellbeing of employees even further are industries such as oil and gas, mining and construction, where technologies that have their origins in the military are beginning to take hold. For instance, Equivital’s chest-mounted wearable sensors, that measure heart rate, stress levels, breathing, skin temperature and body position, are helping employers to identify when working conditions – such as extreme heat or cold – are putting their people at risk.

Mental health is another key area for review. Depression, anxiety and stress are major reasons for both absenteeism and presenteeism, and are costing our economy dear. Not only do these costs manifest themselves in days off – in 2013/14, some 11.3 million days of work were lost due to stress, depression or anxiety – but also in poor business decisions as well. Researchers at the University of Cambridge have learned how while some hormones, including naturally produced steroids and testosterone, increase confidence and make us take more risks, stress hormones such as cortisol have the opposite effect. The right amount of stress therefore can help us make the right decisions; the wrong amount of stress will result in poor decision-making.

These findings have resulted in big hedge funds, banks, call centres and consultancies using biometric tracking systems to monitor their staff’s heart rate, skin responses and even voice recordings with a view to establishing whether they are stressed out and therefore performing badly, or are working at peak capacity – similar to the way in which elite athletes adopt high-end analytics to maintain and improve their performance.

Having access to human performance data such as this, which gives employers such a clear insight into the lives of their employees, clearly raises important privacy and moral implications that are beyond the scope of this article to consider. From a health and wellbeing perspective, however, there are multiple benefits.

A healthy workforce means a healthy society

The most obvious of these benefits is a healthier population, which in turn will reduce the demand currently being placed on our national health service. For instance, tracking health and wellbeing trends can help identify potential problems much earlier, meaning staff can get access to appropriate support and treatment before becoming ill or before an illness becomes debilitating.

It can also help address some of the challenges we face with regards to our ageing population. With staff living and working longer it is more important than ever for them to focus on looking after their health. Businesses need to be considering the age demographic of their workforce now and start putting strategies in place to help employees to take a proactive approach to their health.

In addition, wearable and portable medical devices can help people with chronic illnesses remain in the workforce for longer. Philips SimplyGo oxygenator offers a prime example of this – allowing sufferers of COPD to lead much more independent lives through the use of a small, portable machine. 

As the use of these technologies become more popular – in its Wearable Wireless Devices in Enterprise Wellness Programs report, ABI Research predicts that 13 million wearable devices will be integrated into wellness programmes by 2018 – the benefits and disadvantages will become clearer, and more effective strategies put in place as a result.

What is clear, however, even at this early stage, is that they have the potential to drive health and wellbeing among our population. This has very real societal, economic and personal benefits above and beyond their value to business alone. Addressing wellbeing more effectively at work may lead overall to increased life satisfaction, less pressure on the NHS, and, potentially, a lower benefits bill, not to mention a more vibrant society and a stronger economy.

This article is part of a thought-provoking series on living health, brought to you by the New Statesman in association with Philips, which looks at how technology, innovation and big data are helping to improve your health and our health-care system.

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