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5 ways to improve workers’ heart health

Written on 21 February 2022

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) – more commonly known as heart disease – is the leading cause of death worldwide. According to figures from the World Health Organisation (WHO), an estimated 18 million died from CVDs in 2019, accounting for just under a third of all global deaths.

Heart disease is common both in the population at large and in the working population. What’s more, the WHO reports that longer working hours are increasing deaths from heart disease, with a global study concluding that people working 55 or more hours a week are at 35% higher risk of a stroke and 17% higher risk of dying from heart disease, compared to those working 35 to 40 hours a week.

The UK’s own CVD numbers make for sobering reading an put the extent of the problem into context:

  • More than 10% of the population (7.6 million) live with a heart or circulatory disease – 4 million men and 3.6 million women.
  • CVD’s prevalence is estimated to be double that of Alzheimer’s disease and cancer combined.
  • Heart and circulatory diseases are responsible for a quarter of all UK deaths – more than 160,000 deaths each year – with more than 40,000 deemed premature.
  • CVD was the leading cause of mortality in the UK prior to the coronavirus pandemic – an average of 460 deaths each day, or one every three minutes.
  • 100,000 hospital admissions occur each year due to heart attacks – that’s one every five minutes.

What can employers do?

UK employers are in a unique position to promote heart health. More than 75% of the working age are employed, and most spend half of their waking hours at work. Employees will also want to know that their employer seeks to keep them healthy and values their wellbeing.

To mark February being ‘Heart Month’, consider practising the following five heart-healthy habits in your workplace:

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1. Initiate movement

Many workers spend long hours in the same position, often at a desk or workstation. Research shows sedentary sitting or standing can be tough on the body and mind. Encourage your employees to make time for exercise and consider providing ‘movement breaks’ away from the desk or workstation. Stretching, getting up and moving around helps wake the body up and reset the mind. One study found that a 20-minute bout of exercise improved focus and decision making for all.

The more the physical activity makes the body move and burn calories, the better. A lack of physical activity can lead to heart disease as well as many other health risks, including diabetes, obesity and mental health problems – the British Heart Foundation recommends 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity five days a week.

It’s okay to start small. Any physical activity is better than none at all. Encourage all activity initiatives – taking the stairs, playing sports, etc. Offer employees tips such as standing when the phone rings, taking a ‘walking meeting’ or setting a reminder to take a stretch break. Walking meetings or movement breaks for even just 10 minutes a day can add years to employees’ lives.

You could even set up your own workplace challenge such as the Lands End To John O’ Groates Virtual Challenge or Kaido Challenge. As well as supporting mental and physical wellbeing, these initiatives provide an opportunity for colleagues to interact and engage in friendly competition (even if your team is based remotely) and promote conversations about health at work.

2. Promote healthy eating in the workplace

Studies encourage eating more vegetables and fruit because it reduces the risk of heart disease significantly. With this in mind, you could ask workers to bring in heart-healthy dishes for an office lunch get-together, take it in turns to cook nutritious lunches for your teammates, or even organise a healthy cook-off.

Make it easy for onsite employees to grab a healthy snack: where providing a workplace lunch, offer healthy options; stock vending machines with healthy alternatives; and, if you can, make cholesterol-lowering, healthy snacks (fruits, vegetables, unsalted nuts, dark chocolate, etc.) available around the workplace free of charge.

Education, and making sure your staff are aware of healthy eating campaigns, is a good place to start. Signpost employees to the British Heart Foundation’s healthy eating advice, share tips on your company intranet or in your weekly round-up, and set up a central place for sharing healthy recipes.

3. Embrace flexible working schedules

Chronic stress contributes to heart disease. Unfortunately, many workers don’t realise the effect stress can have on their heart health. High stress levels, low levels of physical activity and poor nutrition are all modifiable risk factors that can help reduce CVD risk within your workforce.

Numerous studies identify work as a major source of stress in people’s lives. Additionally, HSE statistics consistently show that stress, depression or anxiety is the leading cause of work-related ill health in the UK, affecting 822,000 workers in 2020/21.

There are a number of steps employers can take to manage work-related stress. However, flexibility is a commonly cited solution. Indeed, when asked what their employers could do to reduce stress, one study found that nearly half of 1,000 employees said introducing flexible working hours would help.

Introducing more flexible working arrangements and giving employees greater autonomy over how and when they work can help them better manage stressful situations, thereby reducing risk factors like high blood pressure. To the extent your business can afford to, introducing flexibility in some form – even just allowing extended lunch breaks for exercise or giving employees with children more control over start times – can make a big difference to people’s stress levels and, by extension, support their heart health.

4. Support heart health at work

Consider a workplace wellness programme. This can provide an ideal opportunity to educate your workforce on heart health, assist in reducing the modifiable cardiovascular risk factors, and help create a strong culture of health and social support. You could also think about offering regular employee health checks and professional on-site blood pressure readings.

High blood pressure is one of heart disease’s main risk factors. Employees should have their blood pressure regularly checked by their doctor or during workplace employee health checks. 120/80mmHg is considered an optimal blood pressure reading. Aging typically changes a person’s blood pressure, which means blood pressure should be checked more regularly in older workers.

Health checks have the added benefit of sending a clear signal to your employees that you care about their health – in and outside of the workplace.

5. Help employees quit smoking

Smokers are two to four times more likely than non-smokers to develop heart disease. Cigarette smoke also harms multiple organs in the body and can lead to the development of several different diseases and cancers.

Someone who feels supported is more likely to quit smoking for good. If you’re in a position to, consider offering financial support for employees who are ready to quit, or incentives for those who successfully quit smoking. You could also offer support services such as smoking cessation counselling as part of your wellness programme.

Studies have shown that couples who attend smoking cessation programs together are nearly six times more likely to quit than those who attempted it alone. In the same way, encouraging team efforts at work, in a similar vein to Stoptober’s 28-day stop smoking challenge, could provide much-needed motivation and support.

The easiest and least expensive way to help employees kick the habit may be to provide them with educational materials, such as the British Heart Foundation’s Health at Work – Quit Smoking booklet. There’s abundant information online which could form the basis of a special workplace campaign.

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