Screen test: health screenin

Offering health screening to employees may seem an expensive option, but itcould arm your organisation withuseful data on employee wellbeing.Sally O’Reilly investigates.

When Karren Brady, chairman of Birmingham City Football Club, went for a routine health screening session at the beginning of the year, she was horrified that the detailed scan failed to give her a clean bill of health. Instead, she found that she had a life-threatening aneurysm – a collection of enlarged blood vessels in her brain.

She was rushed in for emergency surgery in February and the operation was a success. Within a few weeks, she was back at her desk. The condition is now under control, though she still has frequent healthchecks.

Brady, a fit and apparently healthy 36-year-old, is just one of many employees who find they have a serious health condition after having a work-related health scan.

“The check up definitely saved her life,” says Gemma Lewis, general manager of Preventicum UK, the organisation which carried out the screening.

Health screening organisations find evidence of severe health-related conditions in a significant minority of employees, and another provider, Bupa Wellness, estimates that about one-third of the staff it monitors have health problems of some kind.

Dr Garry Savin, medical director at Preventicum, says that with more workplace pressure than ever these days, an increasing number of employers are aware of the need to measure the health of their staff.

“There is more psychological pressure to stay ahead,” he says. “We are eating more and exercising less – the population as a whole is getting heavier. More people are sitting at desks and working at weekends.”

Peace of mind

A healthcheck can point staff in the right direction before serious conditions appear, says Dr Peter Mace, assistant medical director at Bupa Wellness.

“For most employees, these assessments can give increased peace of mind. And if we do find something is wrong, catching it early usually means it is easier to treat.”

Health assessments give a detailed medical history of staff, and an assessment of their current level of health. Providers such as Bupa and Preventicum carry out a whole battery of tests, which tend to be more thorough for more senior staff.

“We have different levels of health assessments for different levels of staff,” explains Mace. “Our ‘key health assessment’ is for people under 40 who may have some health concerns, and those under 50 who appear to have no health problems. It gives information about possible future health risks.”

Staff at all levels can benefit from health screening, says Mace. “It can give HR and OH valuable information about the health of their business,” he points out. “For example, we can compare the health profile of one bank with that of other finance organisations, so they can see if their employees are less healthy than their competitors.”

But the value of health screening is not always easy to prove, he concedes. “There is a tension between what the HR department wants to offer people and what the finance department will fund.”

That being the case, it is up to HR and OH to make a cogent case. “Health screening does make a strong impact on people – they really value it,” says Mace. “Some 75% of people change their lifestyle as a result.”

But Dr Simon Sheard, medical director of Capita Health Solutions, sounds a note of caution. “Health screening is only useful if you can do something with your findings. You should be able to do something with the results,” he says.

The ‘worried well’

Managers also need to communicate the benefits of health screening to staff, he says, otherwise the only people who take up the chance of screening are those who are unlikely to have serious health problems – the so-called ‘worried well’.

“Some organisations use competitions to get staff to get involved: teams compete to lose weight and e-mail each other to see how they are doing, for example. Another effective approach is to get their families on board – if someone is trying to eat more healthily, it’s no good if the rest of their family is still eating burgers and chips,” says Sheard. “Or firms might offer family gym membership, making it easier for staff to get exercise.”

One attention-grabbing tactic gaining popularity is providing a computer programme that gives staff their estimated date of death, once they have recorded statistics such as weight, age, family history and number of cigarettes smoked.

“Small changes to your lifestyle can change your date of death, and people are motivated by the fact that they can have a dramatic effect on their life expectancy,” says Sheard.

But none of these initiatives will work if there isn’t a well thought out strategy behind them in the first place. A hit-and-miss approach to health screening benefits no-one. “You must have clear objectives over time, be clear about what your budget is, and stick to it,” says Sheard.

And remember, once you have put it in place, it is very negative to take it away.

“If you have clear outcomes, you can also show that you are being effective. It proves you are benefiting both individuals and the bottom line,” Sheard adds.

Unhealthy outlook

Last month, Personnel Today and healthcare plan provider HSA surveyed nearly 600 HR decision-makers for their views about employer responsibility for health. Below isa summary of the key findings:

  • 80% of employers don’t feel they get enough support from the NHS.
  • 33% believe the health of the UK workforce will improve over the next five to 10 years.
  • 36% feel it will deteriorate.
  • 84% of UK workers find it difficult to stay healthy.
  • 70% of organisations would like to take more control of employee health over the next five to 10 years…
  • …but 80% also believe individuals should take greater responsibility for their own health.
  • 4% of employers are likely to offer private health screening services in the next five to 10 years.

Source: HSA/Personnel Today

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