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Bottom Line: Brain and Body Health are Inextricably Linked


Image of a woman standing by a window with hand rested on glass looking outside

A psychologically safe workplace not only promotes mental health and prevents mental harm, it can have a profound impact on employees’ physical health and well-being.

When employees feel supported and in control, they are more apt to engage in healthy coping behaviours if they feel stressed or face a set back. However, if they experience chronic stress and tfeel they have no control over the situation, they are more likely to engage in at-risk coping behaviours which can contribute to poor health and chronic disease.

The American Psychological Association notes, “A stressful work environment can contribute to problems such as headache, stomachache, sleep disturbances, short temper, and difficulty concentrating. Chronic stress can result in anxiety, insomnia, high blood pressure and weakened immune system. It can also contribute to health conditions such as depression, obesity and heart disease. Compounding the problem, people who experience excessive stress often deal with it in unhealthy ways, such as overeating, eating unhealthy foods, smoking cigarettes, or abusing drugs and alchol.”

At-risk behaviours can exact a heavy toll on your employees and your business

While genetics play a role in an employee’s risk of chronic disease, so do lifestyle choices and daily habits.

Unfortunately many employers still haven’t made this connection and it is having an impact in the workplace in the form of increased drug and benefit costs, lost-time due to chronic illness, and in some cases, even premature death as a result of cardiovascular disease and stroke.

Let’s look at one example of a prevalent at-risk coping behaviour

Employees who struggle to cope with stress may begin to overeat and/or eat foods that are unhealthy. Overeating can result in obesity, which is a chronic disease that can adversely affect longevity and quality of life. Employees who struggle with their body weight increase their risk of co-morbidity with other chronic diseases like depression. And, since these conditions are bidirectional, one can can contribute to the other.

In Canada, about 27% of adults are obese, and the prevalence surpasses 30% for those aged 35 and older. Another U.S. study found healthcare costs increased in correlation with increasing BMI. “Across each of the eight industries studied, direct healthcare costs increased with increasing BMI: mean direct healthcare costs PPPY [per person per year] across all eight industries were $4853 in the reference cohort, $7152 in the obesity class I cohort, $9703 in the obesity class II cohort, and $19,169 in the obesity class III cohort.

It’s never too late to start building healthy habits in your workplace

The good news is that you can help mitigate these risks by educating and helping employees develop skills and habits that can positively impact their minds and bodies. And, while population health is challenging to change, even a one-to-three-percentage-point improvement can net significant financial and productivity returns.

  • Start by educating yourself – A few years ago, I worked with Shoppers Drug Mart and the Conference Board of Canada to develop the Chronic Disease Calculator.It was designed to help employers understand the costs of chronic disease and the benefits of mitigating population health risks.

  • Pay attention to how work is done and demand on employees – Obviously, you can’t control all aspects of employee well-being, but there are workplace factors you can influence to demonstrate your commitment and support. Reducing role confusion and excessive work demand can help alleviate pressure and contribute to emotional well-being.

  • Educate employees – Employees can receive training to help them build resiliency and make healthy lifestyle choices in challenging times. They will also be more likely to habitiualize healthy lifestyle choices that reduce the risk of illness and promote total health.

  • Play the long game and measure impact – By adopting a Plan-Do-Check-Act approach, you can monitor whether the programs, supports, education, and policies you put in place are helping workers take care of their total health. Short-term disability claims, drug claims, and employees’ health assessment scores are lagging indicators that you can use to track impact year over year.

There are no shortcuts or magic bullets to this challenge and it requires more than simply providing employees with affordable drugs and health services. Playing the long game is the only course for impact and sustainable change.

If you want employees to develop life-long healthy habits, you have to make healthy lifestyle choices part of workplace culture and a regular topic of conversation and education.  

Get to know the author – Dr. Bill Howatt