Give staff free fruit, minister tells bosses
Firms must do more to help sick workers get back to health and reduce burden on NHS, says Hancock
COMPANIES should offer perks such as free fruit, bicycle loans and counselling to help keep workers healthy, a new government strategy suggests.
A major initiative to be launched tomorrow by Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, calls on employers to do more to “help improve the health of their staff and the nation”.
The strategy, which ministers hope will help relieve pressure on the NHS, cites a firm in Cornwall as a model, which offers staff free fruit, counselling and a cycle-to-work scheme.
In an interview with The Sunday Tel
egraph, Mr Hancock also says firms should do more to help ill employees return to work. He is “attracted to the model in the Netherlands where employers have more of a role in working with employees who are off sick”.
He also suggests companies can learn from the military’s rehabilitation of wounded soldiers, who have an 85 per cent “return to work rate” after serious injuries. By comparison, just 35 per cent of civilians went back to work following serious illnesses, he said.
“The lesson is that employers need to be more engaged when people aren’t well, getting them back to work.”
The “prevention” strategy comes after Theresa May pledged to “ensure that people can enjoy five extra healthy, independent years of life by 2035”.
It states that the health of the population can be improved by changes to the environment, housing and the use of technology to “predict” illness, as well as new initiatives by employers. With the consent of patients, technology could now be used by doctors to check they are taking their prescribed medication, Mr Hancock suggests.
The strategy calls the workplace a “great setting for reaching people with messages encouraging healthy lifestyles, including advice on smoking, eating healthily and staying active”.
It says: “Many businesses are already taking action in this space … More employers should follow suit to help improve the health of their staff and of the nation.” It cites Rodda’s, a Corn wall-based dairy firm: “It employs 178 staff and places a big emphasis on health and well-being. Initiatives include free fruit, counselling, bereavement and legal services, cycle to work scheme, and a staff volunteer scheme.”
Matt Hancock found himself in an unusually fortunate starting position when he became Health Secretary in July. He appointment came weeks after Theresa May agreed to increase the budget of the NHS by £20billion a year.
Now, the former culture secretary sees his task not just as ensuring the money is spent effectively and without waste, but also as helping to relieve the burden on the health service by reducing the number of people who need it.
His “prevention strategy”, which he sets out in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph ahead of a formal launch tomorrow, is based around the simple principle that avoiding illness in the first place “is better than cure”.
“Of course the NHS is very focused on what happens in hospital, but 80per cent of what affects the length of your healthy life happens outside of hospital, and preventing ill health in the first place is mission critical to the sustainability of the NHS and to the health of us all,” he says.
The prevention strategy outlines how ill health can be prevented with the help of employers, improvements to housing, and the use of technology and genomics – the analysis of patients’ DNA.
Mr Hancock, renowned in Westminster for his enthusiasm for technology, says recent innovations enable the NHS to target advice at the sections of the population to whom it is most relevant – and could even allow GPs to check patients are taking the medicine prescribed to them.
“The innovations from new technology and better use of data allow us to have much more predictive prevention,” he says.
In practice, for example, this could lead to the NHS targeting anti- smoking messages at pregnant women using data it already holds on patients.
He adds: “Where people consent and want to, you can go much further. For instance, if you get your genome partially sequenced you can find out if you have a deficiency in a particular vitamin.
“A vitamin B12 deficiency leads to a higher instance of dementia but can easily be prevented by eating broccoli. If we said to the population as a whole you must eat more broccoli, it wouldn’t go down as well as if people have their genomes sequenced [and] know that they have a particular problem with vitamin B12 …
“That’s the sort of predictive prevention you can use data for.”
The Government pledged to map 100,000 human genomes by the end of this year to help unlock a “treasure trove” of information to tackle diseases such as cancer. Mr Hancock aims to expand that figure to five million over the next five years.
Clearly conscious of his openness to accusations of encouraging a Big Brother state, Mr Hancock repeatedly insists that personal data would not be used without the consent of individual patients. But with such permission, information from wearable technology, such as Fitbit wristwatches, could be monitored by doctors to help ensure patients are keeping up activity levels.
Patients could even “choose to wear a device that measures whether you take a drug” and passes the information on to their doctor.
“At the moment [doctors] have to rely on you saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or ‘maybe I miss it once a week’. There are technologies now available and just starting to be used where you can measure whether or not that drug has been taken by the individual.”
The strategy also suggests that individual companies should do more to support the health of their staff, including by providing free fruit and funding “cycle to work” schemes.
Employers have an “increasingly large role to play in supporting employees when they are not well”, Mr Hancock adds. “Other countries in Europe are much better than we are at this – at helping people to get back into the workforce. I’ve just been at the Defence and National Rehabilitation Centre in Loughborough, which helps soldiers get back to fitness after injury.
“Soldiers have an 85per cent return-to-work rate after a serious injury and they have obviously some very serious injuries. The equivalent rate for civilians is only 35per cent … and the lesson from that is employers need to be more engaged when people aren’t well, getting them back to work.
“We’ve just funded a £70million project in the Budget to put the NHS alongside the military facility so that we can see the lessons the military have learned in rehabilitation and bring them into the NHS.” Mr Hancock cites the example of Holland, where companies are penalised if they fail to demonstrate “due diligence” in the rehabilitation of unwell staff.
He adds: “The links between the employers and the NHS and people who are unwell need to be strengthened here.”
‘Preventing ill health in the first place is mission critical to the sustainability of the NHS and to the health of us all’
‘Employers need to be more engaged when people aren’t well’