Commentary

The cost of stress: COVID-19, chronic disease, and calculating risk

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COVID-19 continues to challenge Canadians, both personally and professionally. At a personal level, it has disrupted social connections and recreational routines. Those with children are juggling work and parenting. And some are riddled with financial worries. On the professional front, challenges such as working remotely or a fear of catching COVID-19 have amplified worry and distress for many employees.

We’ve learned from our research with the Mental Health Commission of Canada that a significant percentage of employees are engaging in at-risk behaviours—such as overconsuming food—as a strategy to cope with stress.

In the case of overeating under stress, there are increased risks for obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. It’s also common for a person living with a chronic illness such as diabetes to be at increased risk of mental health concerns like depression or anxiety.

Before COVID-19, population prevalence rates for obesity were nearly 15 per cent. And this does not include the percentage of the population that is overweight. Carrying extra pounds that can accumulate also increases the risk of chronic disease.

COVID-19 continues to amplify the average employee’s level of worry, uncertainty, and social connection gaps. It is likely that the longer COVID-19 negatively impacts society, the better we can predict employees’ risk of chronic disease by observing how they live with the pandemic.

Employers can mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on employees’ health and ability to cope by exploring how they’re educating and supporting physical and mental health.

Most employers accept that COVID-19 has brought many challenges and negative stress. But leaders want to see data, and understand the risk and estimated financial impact of chronic disease on the employer. Many decision-makers also accept that it’s reasonable to assume employees’ general health has been negatively impacted to varying degrees since the start of COVID-19.

Potential financial risks

Before investing in prevention, senior leaders want to understand costs. This number allows them to make decisions related to their level of concern, and to consider what options they have to reduce costs while supporting employees’ quality of life and workplace experience.

Leaders can begin by getting some perspective around the cost of doing nothing. They can access the free Health Solutions by Shoppers Online Chronic Condition Calculator to help estimate the costs related to chronic disease in their workplace.

The Chronic Condition Calculator provides a quick perspective on actions and investments that can be made to lower the impact of chronic disease. Health Solutions by Shoppers also offers several programs that can help to support, prevent, and maintain many of the common chronic conditions in the workplace.

Estimated costs can help a leader make decisions on the benefits of investing in prevention and early-intervention programs. I often coach employers wanting to reduce chronic disease costs to focus on making one- to three-percentage-point improvements year over year.

My concern is that COVID-19 has been an accelerator of health issues, so it’s beneficial for leaders to get some perspective. This will enable them to ask critical questions as to what’s happening and what can they do to mitigate financial and health risks.

Bill Howatt

Dr. Bill Howatt

President and Founder of Howatt HR

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