>“At work, at home”

As I began a new role with WorkSafeNB, alongside ongoing work in Emergency Care, I thought that perhaps it was timely to reflect on some of the best ways that we can all improve our health and the health of our patients, whether at work, or at home. Too often, we equate our health with how we feel, what pills we take, or how often we see a nurse or doctor. We all have a much greater influence and control over the quiet processes underpinning our physical and mental health than we are aware of.

How can we, as a society, achieve mindfulness that while some parts of our bodies (neurons) are as old as we are, others (skin, lungs, liver and even our heart) are replaced over time, cell by cell? That the food we eat is not just fuel for our bodies, but also supplies the building blocks – the replacement parts for our organs? To consider that when we drink that bottle of sugary pop to wash down the nachos or pizza, we should not be surprised if the body we build, over time, reflects those choices. If we sit all day, every day, and then suddenly need to run to catch a bus, or climb a flight of stairs, is it surprising that our leg muscles cry out in protest, and our heart pounds to alert us to its stress?

I believe that 2017 is as good a year as any for us as a society, and as individuals, to make some changes, so that in 2018, 2028 and beyond, we have a little bit more health, and a little less “health care” in our lives. How does that relate to work? Let’s look at a few scenarios: working, being unemployed, disability, going back to work and time spent at home.

Working: In general, going to work is good for us. Working is the most common way to make a living and attain financial independence. We know that long spells without work are harmful to physical and mental health. Earning enough money to eat well, to afford leisure, to reduce stress around meeting payments is likely to benefit our health. Work also meets many psychosocial needs including identity and providing a purpose in life.

However, many jobs pose both physical and psychological hazards that can risk health. These might include the dangers associated with construction, operating machinery or performing repetitive tasks, or may simply be the amount of sitting down at work. People who sit for prolonged periods of time have a higher risk of dying from all causes — even those who exercise regularly.

Unemployment: There is a strong association between not working and being in poor health. Unemployed people die earlier, have more physical and mental health issues, and use medical resources more frequently.

Disability: Injured and ill workers need the time and medical interventions provided to them by workers’ compensation, or other insurance, to recover from their injury or illness. However, they too will suffer the ill effects of being off work for extended periods of time.

Going back to work: For the most part, the negative effects of not working can be reversed by going back to work. Disabled and sick individuals should be encouraged and supported to return to some form of work as soon as possible, when their health condition permits. Again, this helps to promote recovery and rehabilitation; leads to better physical and mental health outcomes; improves their economic position and improves quality of life overall.

At home: Many of the factors that influence health in the workplace also apply at home and in all other settings. Better food, less sitting, more exercise, more relaxation, and active community engagement all improve our health and wellbeing.

We all know these things to be true. Physicians and politicians talk about educating the public. And yet rates of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, mental health issues and many other chronic illnesses continue to increase. So, while we must continue to promote healthy choices, it is clear that education and information are not very effective without systemic change.

Over the past century, major health improvements and increased life expectancy came about because of clean water and rapid declines in infectious disease, including immunization policy, as well as broad economic growth, rising living standards, and improved nutritional status. Much of this change has been at a societal level, rather than individual – in other words, ordinary people didn’t really need to make any special effort to benefit from these things. More recent smaller gains have resulted from advances in treatment of cardiovascular disease and control of its risk factors, such as smoking.

Frieden’s “Health Impact Pyramid” clearly shows that if we want to improve health, the most effective and straightforward means is through improving socio-economic factors. However, the next level of action is challenging. “Changing the context to make individuals’ default decisions healthy” may sound to some a little too much like the “nanny state” or “big brother.” But does true independent individual choice exist? We tend to eat similar foods to those around us – think of the difference you notice when you travel to another culture. The milk we drink, the bread we eat – as individuals, we do not control the ingredients. We have similar habits to those around us – think social media, cars we drive, holidays we celebrate. These choices all contain elements that are beyond our control, yet they influence our health every day. Individual choices will move in a healthier direction when government, industry and community leadership come together to establish a healthier environment.

I will sign off with my suggested prescriptions for 2017. These are all achievable, without a major amount of effort, at minimal cost, but with major potential benefit:

Prescription for Workers:

Engage in your job. Remain as physically active as possible at work – stand rather than sit, for periods of time; use the stairs rather than the elevator. Eat well – pack a salad for lunch; don’t bring unhealthy sugary snacks to work. Take regular breaks, each day, each week, and use your vacation to renew body and mind. Safety – always take full safety precautions; never operate dangerous machinery when fatigued, distracted or intoxicated; report any dangers you discover.

Prescription for Employers:

Engage your workers. Provide opportunity for physical activity. Facilitate options for healthy eating. Schedule workers appropriately, allowing adequate rest periods. Provide support for stressed, sick, or injured workers. And of course, always provide a safe work environment, cultivating a safety culture where workers are comfortable discussing dangers and precautions.

Prescription for Decision Makers (Government, Healthcare Providers, Industry, etc.):

Continue to work towards full employment. Promote exercise, and make it easier for all to exercise safely – with walking paths, cycle lanes and paths, safe crosswalks. Encourage a better general diet – create incentives for healthy choices. Encourage and incentivize the healthcare sector to make cost effective choices for treatment and investigation. Prioritize health and prevention of disease when making policy decisions – factor in long term investment and cost savings over short term gains. Help create a healthy, safe culture for all.

Prescription for All of us at Home:

Let’s think about what food we buy – we are likely to eat it! We are what we eat (and drink) – it is not just fuel. Don’t drink sugary beverages – they will damage our livers and increase our chance of diabetes and obesity. Don’t smoke – it kills – and help is available to stop. Stand up, walk around, then walk some more. There are 24 hours in a day – why not spend at least half an hour exercising? Spend some time with friends and family, and spend some time alone, thinking.

Here’s to a healthier 2017, at work, and at home.

Dr. Paul Atkinson MB MA FRCPC
Professor and Research Program Director
Emergency Medicine
Dalhousie University
Saint John Regional Hospital
Saint John, NB E2L 4L2Chair, Department of Emergency Medicine Research Committee,
Dalhousie University in New Brunswick

Chief Medical Officer, WorkSafeNB

Senior Editor, Canadian Journal of Emergency Medicine

paul.atkinson@dal.ca

@Eccucourse

Dr Paul Atkinson

 

For original article in OPUS MD and French version see below.

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