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Health beyond health care by Pritpal S Tamber

Sickness costs UK organisations about £29billion each year[1]. Levels of ill-health are rising as a result of poor diets and less active lifestyles. It’s increasingly clear that employers in the UK have to take an active interest in the health of their employees.

The statistics make difficult reading. For instance, 67% of men and 57% of women in the UK are either overweight or obese, raising the risk of diabetes, heart disease and cancers[2]. On average, obese people take 4 extra sick days per year[3]. Between 2011 and 2013 alone the cost of sickness absence grew by 4%[1].

In response, employers are being encouraged to adopt ‘workplace wellness’ programmes that try to encourage better health-related behaviours. These have been commonplace in the US for some time but the evidence is increasingly clear that the return on investment is often less than 1-to-1[4]. In other words, they rarely work.

If we stop to look closely enough we can see that something needs to change. Rates of obesity across the world have risen steadily for the past three decades. No country has been able to stop it. It’s time for us all - including employers - to think anew.

Health is not something that just happens in hospitals. Nor is it the exclusive purview of the workplace. Our health is derived from the totality of our circumstances. It’s increasingly recognised that about 70% of our health comes from our social circumstances and the environment, 10% is in our genes, and 20% comes from health care[5].

Employers need to change how they think about the health of their employees and, in so doing, reconceive their role in society. Employers don’t just provide jobs to a community; they’re part of the community. They’re not a disconnected entity, they’re interwoven into the very DNA of the communities they touch. They’re part of the 70%.

Through my work, including the Creating Health Collaborative[6], I explore the idea of health beyond health care. Since being the Physician Editor of TEDMED, I’ve spent the last few years talking to entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs trying to understand – and create – health from the perspective of people and communities. Through the Collaborative, I contribute to developing and promoting new approaches to health.

It’s time for employers to move beyond ‘wellness’, think harder about corporate social responsibility, and even question the current fashion of creating shared value. It’s time for employers to understand the DNA they’re part of and embrace their role as health-creating organisations.

Read more on Pritpal here

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