Phil Austin: Why HR teams should treat preventative care as a business priority

It’s alarming how much preventative care is an afterthought in today’s fast-paced culture. Worryingly, people often wait until an emergency occurs to see a doctor rather than being proactive about their health and wellbeing.

The issue is so widespread that two-thirds of Brits admit to putting off going to the doctor over fear of receiving bad news. Experts estimate around four in 10 cancers could be prevented largely through simple lifestyle changes. Simply put, people just aren’t aware of how their lifestyle is linked to cancer. Studies show that 15 in 20 people are not aware of the connection between obesity and certain kinds of cancer, and 18 in 20 aren’t aware of the link between alcohol and cancer.

We hear a lot about stress in the workplace, which unfortunately has become common place among today’s workers. Many of the stress-related issues affecting employees are both predictable and preventable, and early intervention should be a key focus for both employers and workers alike. The earlier employees can receive treatment for their condition, the faster and better their recovery will be.

The sad truth is that too many people are waiting until they are truly ill before seeking care. The good news is we’re becoming more aware of the need for change and the positive role preventative care can play in creating or sustaining a successful business.

That can only be a step in the right direction for business owners and HR leaders looking to help empower employees to stay healthy, fit and productive.

Encouraging health checks for early diagnosis and intervention

First, let’s paint a picture of preventative care. You likely engage in some form or another of preventative care as part of your day-to-day routine: whether you exercise regularly, or you decide against that extra slice of cake after dinner. These are choices you make in an effort to prevent future health problems. In this way, you’re using preventive measures to improve your health.

Best-in-class preventative care involves much more than just quick decisions. Nowadays, there are a range of health checks and services available through the NHS or private healthcare providers. These include cancer screens and health assessments designed to spot the early signs of certain conditions and provide advice on how to lower risk. These are crucial steps everyone should take in ensuring they stay healthy, avoid or delay the onset of illness and keep any existing health conditions under control.

Thousands of lives are saved each year by early detection, so that a proper diagnosis and necessary treatments can start as early as possible. By knowing personal risks, some cancer checks can help people take appropriate action to prevent the disease.

But, how can employers do more to help employees engage with preventative care and avoid issues further down the line?

We know that achieving and maintaining good mental and physical health can be challenging for employees today. Our 2019 Cigna 360 Global Well-being research found almost half of UK employees (49 per cent) work in an always-on culture.

It’s therefore important that HR managers support and allocate time for employees to proactively manage their health and wellbeing and encourage them to participate in preventative care programmes. Not only will this help them improve their health in the long run, but it’ll help the business reduce absence and lower down-the-line health costs. Over time they’ll gain more productive, happy and engaged staff who can focus better on their work. Simply put, the more your employees take advantage of preventative care, the more their health and wellbeing improves, and the more cost-effective their care becomes.

Using tech to engage millennials

When it comes to our health, it’s human nature for people to think that they’re invincible. As a result, HR teams can often struggle to get staff engaged with their health, particularly millennials who don’t expect to see the likes of heart conditions in their age group. However, according to our research, an alarming 17 per cent of millennials had experienced symptoms of heart problems in the past six months, more than any other demographic in the UK apart from over 50s. No one is invincible and everyone – regardless of their age – should be prepared to engage with doctors and health providers to avoid future, often preventable issues.

Tech, especially smartphone-based apps, is a great way to increase uptake in preventative care. With millennials spending more time on their smartphone than any other generation, this group is unsurprisingly more likely to embrace digital health trackers to track and manage their heart health (20 per cent vs UK average of 14 per cent). As they become more mainstream, cost-effective and better diagnostic tools, they’re also forming a more central part of industry-leading health and wellbeing programmes.

Communication is key

Whilst not every business will have the resources in place to offer best-in-class health and wellbeing programmes either in-house or through a private medical provider, everyone has access to NHS screening programmes. To help employees better understand and appreciate what health services and preventative care is available to them, HR teams should concentrate on communicating and educating teams on the benefits of these services. As with any workplace benefit, people can’t take advantage of preventative health services if they don’t know they exist.

When employees are regularly made aware of the preventative care services offered and the benefits they provide, it’s likely that they’ll participate and make use of them. Not only does this help to save the business money, it can potentially help save the lives of employees as well.

Ultimately, it’s up to employers to consider the benefits of introducing a preventative care programme that is clearly communicated and easily accessible to help employees feel supported. Employees for their part, should stop living in ‘Fear of Finding Out’ and start to engage with their health. They can do so by attending regular screenings, improving their lifestyle and taking advantage of technology to help them implement simple and gradual changes to their day-to-day routines. This will not only reduce the high cost of absence through long-term sickness, but it will also have positive knock-on consequences for people’s peace of mind to drive performance at work. It’s time we all start engaging with our health and start living for a better tomorrow.





Phil Austin is international markets global head of strategy and distribution for Cigna International.

Phil joined Cigna in 2002 as partnership director for the UK Healthcare Benefits business. He has held a number of leadership roles within the business including Health, Life and Accident (HLA) European sales and marketing director, Interim CEO for HLA Europe, head of global individual health as well as managing director for Cigna’s domestic health businesses in the UK and Spain.