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New Zealand Workforce Dangerously Unhealthy

20th July 2009

New Zealand Workforce Dangerously Unhealthy

One in four blue collar workers are at high risk of experiencing a heart attack, stroke or other cardiac problem in the next five years according to research carried out by workplace wellness provider, Vitality Works.

The research involved 4,284 blue and white collar workers across a range of public and private companies around the country and showed that a large proportion of the New Zealand workforce is overweight and unhealthy.

Each person was assessed by a consultation at their worksite by a health professional and measured across a range of areas including cholesterol, body mass index, blood glucose – which is a precursor to Type 2 Diabetes - and risk of a cardiac problem.

By using a clinical prediction tool, Vitality Works was able to ascertain the risk of an employee experiencing a cardiac problem such as a heart attack. The findings showed that men had three times the chance of having an event (eg. heart attack or stroke) than women.

Body mass index measurements showed that 77% of males and 61% of females were overweight, obese or morbidly obese.

Dr Clara Soper, operations director of Vitality Works, said that the findings were alarming for individuals and employers.

“There is a clear relationship between the health of individuals and their productivity at work. We are seeing a steady decline across many areas of employees’ health and fitness levels. While this is very much an individual’s responsibility, there is a huge opportunity for industry to look after their people and in doing so, improve productivity.

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“There are many ways in which your work environment can dictate whether you make good health choices or not. For example, a workplace café that only serves up spaghetti bolognaise and chips is not doing anyone any favours.

“New Zealand has one of the lowest rates of productivity in the OECD. In recessionary times and when people are being made redundant, companies need to invest in their people. The remaining staff will need to be more productive and this is hard when you are stressed, sick and tired. Running programmes that support the wellbeing of your people is not just a nice thing to do. It will positively impact your bottom line,” Dr Soper said.

Factory and field workers are much more unhealthy than office workers. The body mass index measurements showed that 78% of factory and field workers were overweight, obese, or morbidly obese compared to 63% of office workers. Alarmingly, 28% of factory and field workers are in serious danger of an adverse cardiac event compared to only 10% of those that sit behind a desk.

Dr Soper explained that the difference in those people whose job is not in the office – so factory, transportation type jobs – is that most of them are exhausted at the end of the day with no enthusiasm for exercise and haven’t eaten properly which significantly impacts on your health.

“Factory and field jobs tend to attract high Polynesian and Maori populations, low socio economic groups and males – all of which are largely over-represented in the ‘unhealthy’ category.”

Wellingtonians take the lead in having the healthiest workers with 37% being in a healthy weight range and 75% of the workforce being in the normal blood glucose range – the highest in the country on both counts. Dr Soper suggests one reason for this is the walkability and culture of active transport (walking to and from work) that exists in Wellington much more so than say Auckland.

Aucklanders didn’t fare quite so well with only 30% being in the healthy weight range and 70% being in the normal blood glucose range.

Otago and Southland were the least healthy both with only 18% being in the healthy body weight range. Southlanders are not keen to part with their cigarettes with only 41% having never smoked – compared to 74% in the Waikato. The Ministry of Health official rate is 19.9% of New Zealanders smoke.

As expected, Maori and Polynesians top the scales with 83% and 89% respectively being overweight, obese or morbidly obese. Indians (73%) are followed by Europeans (69%) and the healthiest body weight is claimed by Asians.

The female population faired better overall than the men but both sexes need to get serious about their health.

Dr Soper said if you only committed to changing one thing in your life, if should be reducing your weight.

“There is now emerging research that shows that being obese is as bad for you as smoking in terms of reduced life expectancy. Losing weight and keeping it off will dramatically improve your overall health,” concluded Dr Soper.


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