Fatter, sicker and less productive


Work is becoming more sedentary and the global workforce is becoming fatter, sicker and less productive due to chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes. But far too little attention and money is going towards preventing such diseases.

A new report prepared by PricewaterhouseCoopers Health Research Institute in conjunction with the World Economic Forum has identified chronic disease as a growing and costly threat to companies and their workers.

"Working Towards Wellness: Accelerating the Prevention of Chronic Disease," calls on CEOs worldwide to make 'wellness' central to their corporate business strategy, suggesting that multinational employers have the greatest stake in and best opportunity to prevent chronic disease.

The economic toll of this chronic disease for developing and developed nations around the world is estimated at approximately three percent of gross domestic product, globally.

But just how far companies as well as governments have to go is clear from the fact that preventable risk factors such as poor diet, lack of physical activity, stress and smoking are the biggest contributors to chronic disease.

Yet despite this, a mere three per cent of spending on health in the OECD countries in 2004 went on prevention.

"There are quantifiable benefits from using wellness programmes to attract and retain talented, healthy employees," said Simon Leary, partner PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP and Health Research Institute leader for Europe.

"You can improve the health and well-being of your workers while also bolstering your bottom line. The economic case for prevention is overwhelming.

He added that the prevention of chronic diseases has been chronically under-funded as resources were devoted instead to fighting infectious diseases and reducing maternal deaths and diseases of the poor and malnourished.

But companies around the world are now paying the price for this in the form of reduced productivity, increased tax burdens and declining competitiveness, he argued.

While the United States remains the world's fattest nation, with over half of adults overweight or obese, China and India are growing fatter at a faster pace than even their economies.

By 2015, the number of overweight and obese adults in China and India will grow by 66 per cent and 44 per cent, respectively. In India, the share of deaths from chronic disease is expected to increase from 40 per cent in 1990 to 67 per cent in 2020, and spending on cardiac-related treatments is expected to grow annually by 13 per cent.

Across the globe, the report suggests that approximately two per cent of all capital spent on the workforce is lost to disability, absenteeism and presenteeism (i.e. diminished productivity from ill employees who go to work but work below par) due to chronic disease.

Combined, these indirect costs are more than the additional direct medical claim costs that some employers incur.

As part of the research, PWC and Washington DC-based National Business Group on Health also conducted a survey of wellness programmes among multinational employers representing more than three million employees worldwide, and discovered a growing emphasis on health prevention in the workplace.

More than half of the companies surveyed expect to introduce or expand corporate wellness programmes over the next five years, a third are rolling out comprehensive wellness programmes in multiple countries and another 17 per cent are rolling out a single wellness programme in multiple countries.