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April 5, 2009

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Rate of worker ill health predicted to rise

The burden of chronic disease in the UK will grow significantly over

the next 20 years, and workplaces need to put in place measures that

mitigate the risks associated with this trend.

This is one of the key findings from a major report exploring the challenges and opportunities in managing and preventing ill health among UK workers.

The report, which is published by insurance company Bupa in partnership with the Work Foundation, the Oxford Health Alliance, and Rand Europe, predicts that heart disease will rise by 13 per cent by 2030. It also foresees:

  • the number of workers with diabetes or respiratory diseases will increase by at least 8 per cent to 5.5m;
  • a nine-per-cent increase in musculoskeletal disorders, affecting more than 7 million workers; and
  • a five-per-cent rise in the rate of mental illness in the workforce to affect 4.2m employees.

According to Bupa, the costs of sickness absence and ‘worklessness’ associated with working-age ill health are likely to worsen, owing to an ageing workforce and a rise in the number of employees with long-term conditions that need managing over a sustained period. Workers are also likely to need to devote more time to caring for older people.

Against this backdrop, the report identifies the workplace as an as-yet under-used setting to influence the health behaviours of large numbers of people, including those at risk of disease, and hard-to-reach groups. In the past, a lack of perceived benefits to the employer and fears of “being accused of ‘nannying’ their employees” have dissuaded many organisations from investing in workplace-health interventions.

But the report says a change of attitude is necessary: “Health-promotion campaigns in the workplace can both reduce an individual’s long-term risk of disease and deliver short-term health gains that will lead to improved productivity and reduced absence. Raising awareness of this will encourage more employers to invest in the kind of health-promotion campaigns that will help reduce future levels of ill health in the UK.”

It also says that employers can help reduce levels of mental illness, caused both in and outside work, by embedding workplace health in organisational culture. This will require companies to align investment in workplace health more closely with other aspects of human resources, such as skills and training, job design, and working practices.

In considering potential challenges and barriers to encouraging employers to act, the report highlights “a lack of consistent data on incidence and prevalence rates for major diseases broken down across similar age groups, geographies and timescales, and the true cost of ill health in the workplace”.

Dr Natalie-Jane Macdonald, managing director for Bupa UK Health Insurance, said: “Our report provides British businesses with an early warning of how the health needs of workers will change, and, importantly, it gives them time to take action to keep their employees healthy, productive and at work. The commercial benefits of taking action on workplace health are clear as healthy employees can be nearly three times more productive than those in poor health.”

Christine Hancock, director of the Oxford Health Alliance, commented: “As most people spend at least a third of their time at work, the workplace can make a real difference to health and healthy living.

“This report signals clearly to British businesses that unhealthy lifestyle behaviours, such as poor diet, smoking and lack of physical activity, will be a major factor driving up long-term diseases in the working population over the next 20 years. The good news is that these behaviours can all be easily and effectively tackled in the workplace by encouraging and influencing change.”

A second report, due out later this year, will contain recommendations on how companies can help manage and improve the health of their employees.

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