Help your staff to help themselves with workplace health checks

Workplace health checks can offer employers just as much benefit as their employees. Occupational Health magazine looks at integrating them into an organisation.

In 2011/12, 1.1 million working people suffered a work-related illness, while workplace injuries and ill-health cost society an estimated £13.4 billion in 2010. A large proportion of this absence is linked with lifestyle-related illnesses, such as those related to alcohol, smoking, blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. These facts mean that workplace health screening not only presents a significant benefit to employees, but also to employers.

Box 1: The top five benefits of screening in the workplace

  • Increased staff morale and loyalty.
  • Decrease in staff absenteeism.
  • Monetary benefits through improvements in business performance and profits.
  • Helps business meet health and safety targets.
  • Improves the brand and corporate image of organisations by demonstrating corporate social responsibility to employees.

Since 2009, the NHS Health Checks programme has been screening individuals aged between 40 and 74 to identify their risk of developing lifestyle diseases including stroke, diabetes, heart disease and kidney disease. Health screens are often the first opportunity for an individual to discover that they may be at risk of illness, enabling behaviour modification programmes such as weight management or smoking cessation to be both targeted and timely in order to make the most impact.

Health checks are usually performed by GPs, but can also be carried out by “any qualified provider” in almost any setting – and increasingly, in the workplace.

Benefits of workplace screening

The workplace is an important but largely underutilised setting for promoting health and wellbeing. Considering those at high risk may be oblivious to the inherent risks affecting them and are unlikely to visit their GP regularly, workplace screening initiatives are an important opportunity for reaching those individuals most at risk of developing one of “the big four” killer diseases.

The health of the workforce is something that should be high on the agenda of every organisation. Not only does it reduce employee absenteeism and staff turnover, but it also demonstrates to employees that they are a valued part of a company.

Moreover, the equally beneficial business case for investment in workplace health screening is often overlooked. Organisations stand to increase productivity, gain positive recognition for social corporate responsibility, increase their staff retention rates and be seen as an employer of choice.

However, many organisations are unaware of the benefits of workplace screening; when employers are aware of it, they assume it is expensive and complicated to organise. Health Diagnostics – a leading technical partner in managing health screening programmes in the workplace – works with clients to overcome this, especially when it comes to managing data.

People, tools and know-how

Screening programmes are relatively inexpensive and, with the right provider, simple to execute. Health Diagnostics has been responsible for implementing many of the NHS Health Check programmes around the country and now advises corporate and civil service organisations on the issue.

The company’s solution simplifies the process. It combines the use of easy-to-operate testing equipment with individual reporting and connectivity with GP records, plus fully certified training programmes to enable anyone – whether a qualified health professional or not – to perform testing.

“We work closely with our clients to provide them with the tools and training they need to deliver a professional service,” explains Julie Evason, managing director of Health Diagnostics.

“Not only does the individual get an accurate and highly personalised assessment of their health, they are also made aware of risks they face and the lifestyle issues that may affect them. Most importantly, we are able to seamlessly return data back to all GPs’ clinical systems, which is crucial when ensuring that an individual’s results – whether good or bad – are dealt with efficiently. It’s all about having a flexible approach and being able to respond to the individual needs of an organisation”.

A recent series of reports from Health Diagnostics, “A picture of health”, provides an in-depth look into the potential of health checks and their role in improving both employee and public health.

In case study one and case study two, we share two success stories that help illustrate how a simple 20-minute health check not only saves lives, but also provides many other benefits to the individual and their employer.

Screening the police

Due to the stresses and strains of the job, the police are generally known to be at increased risk of developing health issues such as cardiovascular disease (CVD). As a result, many police forces around the country have introduced health screening initiatives, often in conjunction with the regular mandatory fitness tests that officers are obliged to complete.

An important factor to ensure the success of any screening initiative is utilising local knowledge. Elisabeth Eades, OH manager for Surrey Police, emphasises the importance of having nurses and an OH team that fully understands the requirements of the daily job. For Surrey Police, this meant recruiting nurses with experience with and empathy for the lifestyle and specific workplace risks faced by the police.

Ceri Bryant, OH nurse at South Wales Police, runs a CVD screening initiative with the force and fully appreciates the long-term benefits of the programme for a relatively cheap cost.

She says: “The materials to conduct a cardiovascular health check cost about £6 per screen. If you then factor in the time of the person delivering the screening, the cost rises to somewhere in the region of between £15 and £20 per check – a very good investment in helping keep the workforce fit, particularly when the potential human cost of doing nothing is considerable.”

Game-changing potential

With patchy uptake thus far, many large public- and private-sector employers have yet to understand the full benefits that preventative health measures such as workplace screening can bring. As the case studies demonstrate, providing employee health checks can be an opportunity to protect civil services and businesses from unnecessary absenteeism, and a means of uncovering life-threatening issues before they become a more long-term problem.

The argument for effective OH screening does not end there. It is becoming increasingly apparent that workplace programmes also add a valuable string to the bow of national public-health screening.

Carrying out screenings during working hours has the potential to help reach those individuals at high-risk who are currently not visiting their GPs and then who consequently turn up in hospital with, for example, a near-fatal heart attack.

Taken up on a national level, the potential benefits to businesses and society alike could be game changing.

For more information on health checks, download your free copy of the A picture of health reports.

Case Study 1: Surrey Police

Surrey Police has been offering itsstaff cardiovascular health checks for the past 18 months. Elisabeth Eades, the force’s OH manager, oversaw the implementation of an in-house cardiovascular disease (CVD) screening scheme, a programme that had previously been outsourced. The confidential “health MOTs” were developed alongside the mandatory fitness tests that all officers undergo and are, as is the case in South Wales (see case study 2), offered to the entire force. The checks are conducted at the OH headquarters and are generally offered two days every month. They are well publicised and always fully booked, catering for around 20 individuals each day.

“The programme has gone down extremely well and we have had much fewer problems in comparison to when an external provider was delivering the checks,” Eades says. “The previous programme deliverers weren’t engaging with the officers and employees – they just did the test, took the results and then sent some information afterwards.”

The new system has seen employee-focused consultations become the norm, something to which Eades attributes the success of the health check initiative.

The process of carrying out a health check is one thing, but finding someone who understands your employees’ worries or concerns and can talk them through why the check is being carried out and what the results might mean is equally as important.

“The police have particular needs and do like to have the reassurance that people involved in this kind of screening understand them and what they do,” Eades says.

The person delivering the checks therefore holds a very important role. It is crucial that they have an understanding of the stresses and strains involved in an policeperson’s career. The nurse delivering the checks for Surrey Police is a long-time employee of the force herself and so understands what is required. This experience and familiarity, combined with an intuitive screening solution, is perhaps the ideal combination.

As far as results go, not only has Eades seen the health of officers improve, but the introduction of health initiatives such as the screening programme has resulted in a decrease in staff absence over recent years.

“Overall, we’re getting into better shape, which is translating into cost saving,” she says. “If having a healthier force means we have fewer people off sick and avoiding the problems that might lead to early retirement, we’re going to be far better equipped to provide a top-class service to the public.”

Case Study 2: South Wales Police

For five years, South Wales Police’s OH division has been conducting cardiovascular disease (CVD) health screening for its force of 5,000 officers and employees.

The person responsible for carrying out these screenings and offering lifestyle advice is Ceri Bryant, the force’s OH nurse and the recent winner of a police award for exceptional service.

A typical NHS Health Check usually lasts around 20 minutes, but Bryant says the CVD check offered to the South Wales force takes closer to half an hour to conduct and “is very personalised and tailored to the individual’s needs. We’ll often talk about cancer awareness and emotional wellbeing, despite the focus being heart health.” This closely mirrors the new Department of Health advice of “making every contact count”.

The force is not prescriptive about to whom the service is available. Everyone from officers to office-based employees are offered the lifestyle check, with no age limitations. Mobility is also a crucial aspect to accessing the officers and employees that might otherwise be hard to reach.

Commenting on this, Bryant explains that the checks are conducted from both the OH headquarters in Bridgend and through a mobile unit: “The Health Diagnostics system allowed me, for the first time, to go out and get mobile. I’ve since been able to follow this up with a portable vaccination clinic as well.”

Bryant says that so far, the feedback on the service has been overwhelmingly positive: “Some officers have told me that it’s changed their lives, whereas others have been told by their GPs that their lives have been saved.”

She recalls when “a young, 32-year-old officer who was very fit and really looked after himself” had his total cholesterol tested, and came out at 8.9mmol (the UK recommended level is <5mmol).

Bryant thought that it must be a fault with the testing technique and arranged for a follow-up test two weeks later. The officer returned, and again measured a total cholesterol of 8.9mmol.

Despite having no family history of heart disease, the officer visited his GP. After a further test that gave a total cholesterol result of 9.1mmol, the officer’s GP told the young man that it was highly possible that he would have simply dropped dead before the age of 40, and no one would have understood why because he was so far off the high-risk radar.

This example is a particularly strong case for undifferentiated screening as, under NHS Health Check parameters, this young officer would not usually have been eligible for the service.

Another important aspect to successfully implementing health checks is gaining the support and approval from any senior personnel involved in the programme. Bryant attributes much of her success to getting the chief superintendant of the different divisions on board.

“The police service is a fairly paternalistic organisation, and the higher-ranking officers are very concerned with the health of their force,” Bryant says, adding that when she meets with support from senior managers it really helps in breaking down any potential barriers.

This requirement of targeting the approval of the top brass is not something that is exclusive to the public sector, but often transcends into private-sector screening as well.

Julie Evason, managing director of Health Diagnostics, agrees that it is critical to have backing from people at all levels of the workforce: “Workplace screening must be linked to the overall business strategy, and therefore the endorsement of key senior people is essential.”

So why does Bryant think that health checks in the workplace are so effective? Part of it is that officers have felt comfortable disclosing information to her that they might otherwise have retained.

This has, in turn, allowed her to offer effective advice and organise lifestyle change. As a result, she has seen people with serious alcohol problems who she has been able to positively help and others who have been able to “drop four or five stone, one officer in particular lost 11 inches off his waist”.

“We have a large number of incredibly fit and healthy individuals – but there are also those that certainly aren’t as healthy as they could be,” says Bryant.

She has also seen morale among staff go up significantly after the screening programme was introduced.

Above: OH nurse Ceri Bryant (left) carrying out a health check for one of the South Wales Police force’s employees.

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