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RIGHT OF CENTRE: Wellness at work costs less

Trevor Hassell

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The majority of adult Barbadians spend the greater part of their waking time at the workplace. The work environment and activities carried out in the workplace may have either a negative or positive impact on workers’ health status.
However, the workplace is a critically important site for tackling disease prevention and providing enabling environments for healthy living.
Healthy workers result in reduced sickness, disability and death, in financial gain, and serves the best interest of all. It makes good health, business and economic sense.
Chronic non-communicable diseases (NCDs) – heart disease and stroke, cancer, diabetes, hypertension, obesity and chronic lung diseases – are the commonest cause of sickness, disability and death among workers in Barbados and result in a significant economic burden.
This group of diseases is estimated to account for more than 60 per cent of all deaths in Barbados and an estimated 65 per cent or more of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and Barbados Drug Service budgets.
Much evidence shows that the adverse impact of these frequently occurring diseases can be slowed significantly by a whole-society approach and response to them – health care providers, policymakers, individuals and civil society, the business community, employers and workers’ representatives playing their part to create enabling environments for people to pursue lifestyles conducive to good health that will reduce the likelihood of developing NCDs.
This approach to workplace health was given strong support at the United Nations High Level Meeting on chronic diseases in September last year when in the Political Declaration issued at the conclusion of the meeting, recognition was given for all countries to “promote and create an enabling environment for healthy behaviours among workers, including by establishing tobacco-free workplaces and safe and healthy working environments through occupational safety and health measures including, where appropriate, through good corporate practices, workplace wellness programmes, and health insurance plans”.
Workplace health programmes have been shown to benefit employers and workers by reducing sickness and absenteeism, preventing disability, protecting earning capacity, increasing productivity and resulting in decreased expenditure on chronic disease related to acute and chronic medical care.
There are several activities that companies in Barbados should seek to put in place at the workplace.
First among these is the strictest enforcement of the laws banning smoking in public and selling tobacco to minors.
Companies should ensure that healthy foods are offered in vending machines, company canteens, and itinerant/mobile canteens.
Regular physical activity should be encouraged at the workplace by ensuring that stairs are attractive and by posting appropriate signage. Where feasible, there should be walking paths and trails within and around buildings and physical fitness facilities at the workplace.
Finally, companies should provide risk-assessment surveys to identify chronic disease risk among employees and provide information about healthy behaviours, and they should provide health insurance coverage that includes chronic disease prevention.
Most companies recognize that workers are their most valuable asset. An effective workplace wellness programme for all staff is one of the most meaningful ways of giving practical expression to this statement.
• Professor Trevor Hassell is a special envoy for non-communicable diseases and chairman of the NCD Commission.