Moving together towards health goals in the workplace

Who is accountable for the worrying state of health here in the UAE, particularly when we’re talking about non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, obesity and diabetes? And what role does the employee play in all of this?

Since many of these diseases can be either prevented (or certainly reduced in their prevalence), it is easy to start pointing fingers.

With about half of all UAE residents overweight, related conditions such as diabetes and cancer have become increasingly frequent. Heart disease in the UAE strikes on an average of 20 years earlier in life than in the rest of the world. One in five adults in the country suffers from diabetes.

These conditions are almost certainly exacerbated by a sedentary lifestyle and poor diet. Because when the problem is as widespread as it is, genetics can’t shoulder all of the blame.

Although the government has identified the situation and begun to address it, there is still a huge strain on the system that needs to be tackled. So who will fill the gap? Healthcare providers? Doctors? Employers? They all have a vested interest in steering the nation towards better health, but how much responsibility can be put on the employee?

The accountability quagmire

An employer attempting to install health accountability among employees may be walking into a potential minefield.

To start, there are a number of factors that can determine someone’s health, and if someone is predisposed to a certain condition or ailment because of inherited genes, it is impossible for an employer to hold that employee to account for a genetic condition.

So accountability must then centre on the employee’s behaviour. Once again, however, operating a “nanny state” for your employees may not be seen as a welcome development.

Of course, there are certain professions where employees are held fully accountable for their health and fitness – lifeguards, the armed forces and certain branches of law enforcement are employed partly based on their ability to perform at a high physical standard. It’s hard, although, to convince white-collar workers that they should be held to similar standards when it comes to their health and well-being.

But as an employer, it is understandable that gaining control over business costs is important. And the cost of health benefits for employees can be a considerable contributor to these costs.

How to go about it

Incentive schemes are quite common in some insurance products around the world – motor insurers offer discounts for drivers who achieve advanced qualifications, or have cameras mounted in their vehicles. Home insurers will cut premiums if alarms are fitted, or if there is a neighbourhood watch scheme. So why not a health benefits programme that rewards its members for taking care of themselves?

Employers could steer their workforce towards better decisions on numerous health issues such as:

Smoking: programmes that encourage and assist with the reduction or cessation of tobacco intake

Diet: promotion of healthy eating options, nutritional education and making unhealthy food unavailable in the workplace

Exercise: targeted exercise programmes, personal trainers, providing gym memberships or even exercise areas at work, and allowing staff the time to exercise during the day

Stress: encouraging a healthy work-life balance and regular sleep patterns.

Employee health responsibility in action

In some countries companies can make a deal with employees. The employer can implement health and well-being standards, and employees can keep to these standards in return for a reduction in their healthcare premiums. The regulations make it possible for companies to reduce the cost of health care to those employees who already reach a standard of health, or are willing to work with a coach to reach certain goals. Those employees not interested in the programme are charged a higher premium.

But that is only half the way to full accountability.

What are we talking about when we say full accountability? Are we suggesting staff could be penalised or fired if they fail to give up smoking or continue to engage in a high-risk lifestyle? That would, of course, be a logistical and legal nightmare and is a non-starter. Ultimately, the solution must be one of balance.

The middle way

The most sensible and practical solution lies with offering enhanced wellness and health programmes that not only promote physical fitness, but also help employees to address habits such as tobacco dependency and unhealthy eating.

You only need to work in a company that encourages the use of the gym during lunchtime, that labels foods in the canteen and has price promotions on healthy snacks in the cafe to see how many people’s behaviour can change. With an increase in counselling services for more serious conditions, this move should be something that is good for employees and employers.

Employees cannot be held 100 per cent responsible for their health, but working together towards a common goal is certainly something employers can encourage, with benefits along the way for all parties.

Stephen MacLaren is the regional head of distribution human capital and benefits at Al Futtaim Willis.

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