Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Jan. 31, 2020.
When Ronesh Sinha, a physician, started observing diabetes and heart disease in younger professionals with healthy lifestyles, he realized that these kinds of diseases didn't just stem from the traditional variety of risk behaviors—they were related to the "habits and behaviors intrinsic to the modern work environment," he writes for Politico's "The Agenda."
Slide decks: Your guide to a healthier, happier workplace
4 ways work is undermining your health, according to Sinha
Diseases such as diabetes and heart disease "are some of the biggest drivers of poor health and high health care costs in America," Sinha, who works for Sutter Health's Palo Alto Medical Foundation, writes. And if his patients—many of whom are young, well paid, and "enjoy abundant employer-sponsored benefits"—are struggling with these illnesses, "it means the solutions may be even more difficult than many people assume," he writes.
In other words, according to Sinha, employers can't just offer "state-of-the-art fitness facilities, healthy food options, and abundant wellness resources" and expect all their employees to reach their health goals. Sinha outlines four habits and behaviors in the modern workplace that undermine employee health:
- Sedentary behavior. "Sedentary behavior reaches epic proportions in a workplace where productivity is defined by the hours spent in front of a screen," Sinha writes, citing the "adverse metabolic effects of marathon sitting sessions." He notes that his own patients, many of whom work in Silicon Valley, on average walk just 3,000 steps per day, well short of the 10,000 recommended steps per day. And while employers might think they're addressing the issue by providing fitness centers on site, only the most motivated employees will take advantage of the offerings, Sinha writes—the "most at-risk employees need more creative solutions to get them out of their chairs and moving
- Unhealthy eating. Sinha writes that while employer-provided meals have improved in recent years, companies still vacillate "between offering foods that keep employees healthy and foods that keep employees happy," and those latter options are often unhealthy. Moreover, when under chronic stress, workers tend to either overeat or undereat, Sinha writes, and "either extreme can trigger conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity from caloric abundance or nutrient deficiencies that slow metabolism and trigger autoimmune health conditions."
- Not enough doctors' visits. Many employees simply don't believe they have time to regularly check in with their doctors for preventive care, Sinha writes. Citing his experience with his patients, Sinha writes, "On a work campus with onsite restaurants, haircuts, car washes, and dry cleaning, a 10-minute drive to a doctor's office seems like an unacceptably long journey to many." However, Sinha acknowledges that a few companies have tried to address this by adding medical facilities on site or taking advantage of health care providers, such as Palo Alto Medical Foundation, which sends a mobile medical clinic to the workplace.
- Too much stress. Many American workers are stressed, and the problem is heighted in the high-pressure environment of Silicon Valley, Sinha writes. Many of his patients, he says, will prioritize their work over their health, convinced that they'll be able to care for themselves "once they hit it big."
There's a better way
But it doesn't have to be this way, Sinha writes, and he's identified several "strategies that work well, particularly when resources from the health care system, company, and community merge to create integrated, team-based care."
According to Sinha, "Personalizing solutions for individual health problems is key." Tools aimed at serving large populations—adopted by many companies—are a good start, but "the most effective approach is to apply the most personalized solutions to solving the health issues of highest-risk individuals."
For instance, Sinha explains how Palo Alto Medical Foundation addresses early onset diabetes and heart disease among the Asian Indian population. According to Sinha, such patients will get culturally specific advice on their health and lifestyle from a provider, plus a referral to the South Asian Heart Center for additional counseling and personalized health coaching on a monthly basis.
But the problem can't be addressed by providers alone, Sinha writes—employers have a responsibility to prioritize health as well. According to Sinha, "empowering employees to take care of their health needs means a culture of health must pervade every square inch of a company." For instance, managers should value employee health, not just professional output and employees who resolve health care issues should be honored for their accomplishments. As Sinha points out, employees likely will be more motivated by a healthy peer than by a health care provider.
"It's time for all companies to weave health into their corporate culture and identity, rather than offering it as a 'benefit,'" Sinha writes (Sinha, "The Agenda," Politico, 6/13).
Next, here are 4 ways to be a less-stressed leader
Stress is endemic in today’s health care workforce, but the good news is that leaders have much more control over their stress levels at work than they might think. The most effective leaders take steps to proactively keep their own stress in check—while modeling healthy habits for their teams.
Use this infographic to review effective stress management strategies that can help you become a less-stressed leader.