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Staff travelling overseas for work ‘at risk of silent killers’

By Sarah Dennis, Head of International at Towergate Health & Protection

Employers sending their staff to overseas assignments will be governed by Foreign Office advice on safety and security regarding civil unrest and natural disasters, but what of the silent killers that can have a devastating impact an employees’ health? Deaths from cardiovascular disease and cancers far outweigh deaths from conflict, terrorism, and natural disasters, and must be given consideration.

What can be done to reducing overseas staff risks

Reducing the risk
The dominant risk factors for death are related to dietary and activity lifestyle. With these differing by country, employers with overseas staff must consider any increased risks and how to reduce them. Early intervention and prevention are vital, with screening and health checks key to detecting problems at an early stage.

Highest risk factors

The greatest global risk factors for death1 are high blood pressure, followed by smoking and high blood sugar. Dietary issues, like high sodium, low intake of whole grains, fruits, nuts and seeds, and vegetables, dominate the next risk factors, along with alcohol use and low physical activity.

With the highest risk factors being lifestyle-based, health and wellbeing requires a holistic approach, and employers need to consider benefits to cover all lifestyle areas, providing global employees with access to advice and help for medical, dietary, health and lifestyle issues.

The high-risk factors are also predominantly hidden killers. Many people will be completely unaware that their blood pressure, blood sugar, or sodium content is high. In fact, it is estimated that globally 46% of adults with hypertension (high blood pressure) are unaware that they have the condition2. So it’s important employees are given access to regular checks for these issues.

Risk factors by country

The risk factors change depending upon the country. For example, in Japan, the biggest risk factor is smoking; in American Samoa the biggest risk is high blood sugar; whereas in Zimbabwe it is unsafe sex; and in Qatar it is obesity1.

Dietary, activity, and lifestyle factors have a huge influence on health. These differ by country, so employers must consider customising the options to meet with the requirements in each country or region.

It’s important to quickly address concerns to mitigate the chances of issues escalating. For example, providing access to virtual GPs can be an excellent starting point in getting a diagnosis and fast access to treatment.

Diet and risk by country

With high blood sugar being a major risk factor to health, employers should consider the countries where diet contributes to this. People in the United States consume the most sugar per person per day, followed by Switzerland, then Trinidad and Tobago, then New Zealand3. Particularly in these countries, introducing checks to blood-sugar levels would be beneficial.

When it comes to alcohol, Estonia, Luxembourg, and Ireland rank highest in terms of consumption3, so in these countries it’s particularly important that employers consider introducing an education or awareness programme on responsible drinking.

Exercise by country

Exercise and activity are major plus factors in terms of health and wellbeing. A recent survey4 found that people in the Netherlands are the most active, spending on average 12.8 hours per week on physical exercise. The country where people spend the least amount of time exercising is Brazil.

Apps are available to improve fitness, from those that offer exercise programmes, to those that monitor activity or encourage healthy competition between staff. These have the advantage of being easily available worldwide and are a great way to connect people on a global basis.

Smoking by country

The island nation of Nauru, in the Pacific Ocean, is the country with the highest smoking rates, where over half the population smoke. This is followed by its neighbouring islands of Kiribati and Tuvalu, then by Myanmar, and Chile.5 Smoking-cessation programmes can be a great help to global employees, as can providing lifestyle advice, and access to medical assistance.

While we probably all know we should eat more healthily and exercise more regularly, actually making the changes can be difficult, especially for those living and working away from home. Screening and health checks can have many positive impacts. They enable the early detection of conditions before they become more serious. They offer hard facts and a real incentive for people to make changes to their lives. They also demonstrate how much a company cares, and that can significantly increase engagement.