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Heart disease risk is rising in the workforce. HR teams can help

Ben Green
Dr. Ben Green
Dr. Ben Green, senior vice president for clinical services at AliveCor, works with HR teams to make the KardiaComplete heart health program available to employees.

The leading cause of death in the United States and all over the world has been taking a larger toll on workplaces every year. But its impact, all too often, goes relatively unnoticed.

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Though generally associated with older people, including many retirees, heart disease risk factors have been increasing in the workforce, including among adults aged 20-44. And the forecast is concerning. A study published by the American College of Cardiology predicts a “steep rise” in cardiovascular disease in the coming decades.

The good news is that it’s largely preventable. Many estimates say 80% of cases can be avoided; the Cleveland Clinic has put that figure at 90%. And workplace programs focused on heart health can make a big difference.

In addition to saving lives, these programs also reduce massive financial losses that businesses currently face. “Cardiovascular disease is America’s costliest disease,” the CDC says. “Heart disease and stroke cost approximately $330 billion each year in medical expenses and lost productivity from premature death.”

In addition, the missed workdays cost workplaces about $130 billion a year. Meanwhile, “heart-healthy employees have better morale, miss less work and are more productive than less healthy employees.”

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In my previous job, I served as principal for health innovation at Amazon Global Benefits. This meant helping to spearhead health programs for the more than 1.5 million Amazon employees around the world.

Now, through my work at AliveCor, I interact with HR leaders at all sorts of corporations, helping them advance their offerings to employees for heart health improvement. Through all this, I’ve seen how a new approach can be transformative. Here’s how HR can take the lead.

The proactive era of heart disease management

More and more organizations are expanding their wellness programs to encourage lifestyle changes like physical activity, smoking cessation and healthier snacking. There’s also another important element in creating a proactive strategy: empowering employees to track their heart health.

Some workplaces provide diagnostic screenings, hiring a company to offer these services on site for a day. While these can be helpful, they’re limited in scope. They don’t present an ongoing way for people to track changes in their health. And since many people now work from home or hybrid schedules, they’re less likely to happen to be on site on a day that this benefit is offered.

Empowering people to do their own self-assessments at home can be far more impactful. For example, the CDC notes the benefits of providing employees with blood pressure monitoring devices. In my current work at AliveCor, I’ve been focusing on something similar: helping HR teams equip their staff with technology to perform electrocardiograms, known as ECGs or EKGs, on their own.

These programs work best as technology-enabled disease management programs. When a self-assessment shows a problem, the management program (usually in the form of an app) offers the employee advice or access to a medical professional through a telehealth appointment.

See also: 3 cost-savings benefits trends to watch for the second half of 2023

I’ve found that when employers make these kinds of technologies available, the benefits are threefold. First, employees become more likely to discover a potential health problem and get timely help. Second, when they know that their health metrics are normal or improving, their stress levels are reduced, so they’re better able to focus on work. And finally, they can avoid unnecessary healthcare services like emergency room and urgent care center visits.

Making new health tools work

These days, most people work for companies that have self-funded health insurance plans. In those cases, it’s up to benefits teams to make these kinds of ancillary programs available. In companies that use fully insured plans, the insurance companies can include these programs as options.

For patient privacy and peace of mind, it’s important for HR teams to make clear to employees that these technologies will not give the company access to their private medical data.

It’s also crucial to help employees understand why these tools are so important. Often, health problems can hide in plain sight. And while the remote work revolution can introduce some health benefits, with some people saying they now have more time for exercise, it also runs the risk of increasing sedentary lifestyles—meaning heart health could get even worse if people aren’t vigilant.

More than ever, employees are turning to their companies for help with improving their health and wellness. Health-related benefits, including ways to improve their health from home, are top of mind. At a time when businesses are turning to their HR teams to make sure benefits packages are competitive, advancing wellness offerings is a must. The more HR leaders make heart health a priority, the more they’ll attract and retain top employees—while also combating the world’s greatest killer.