By Dr. Marcus Ranney

Your health is in your hands. I know this statement may sound like a cliché, but unfortunately it is one of today’s realities. Let me try and convince you with the following three facts about India. I use her as a model, but the lessons learnt here can be equally applied to many of the developing world economies from across the globe.

Indian residents are the third most obese in the world. Given that we often think of obesity as a disease associated with the western world due to bad diets filled with unhealthy calories and supersize meals, this statistic becomes even more shocking when we realise that 270 million Indians live below the official poverty line.

It is estimated that 61.3 million people aged between 20 to 79 years suffer from diabetes in India (2011 estimates), and this number is expected to increase to 101.2 million by 2030. Additionally, Indians actually get diabetes, on an average, 10 years earlier than their western counterparts, and according to the WHO, if one adult in a low-income family has diabetes, “as much as 25% of their family income may be devoted to diabetes care.”

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The rate of cardiovascular disease mortality in India in the 30-59-year age group is double that in the USA. According to the Center for Disease Control in the USA, 70% of all health care costs and 75% of deaths in India are due to preventable health conditions. These include avoidable ailments such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and many heart conditions.

In fact, contrary to the popularly held belief that chronic conditions usually impact individuals over the age of 50, in India (as with many other developing economies) it is in fact the younger population that is most at risk due to a host of lifestyle choices which they make through their diet and day-to-day routines.

Indians actually get diabetes, on an average, 10 years earlier than their western counterparts, and according to the WHO, if one adult in a low-income family has diabetes, “as much as 25% of their family income may be devoted to diabetes care.”

The implication of the above observations is that the major proportion of the corporate workforce in India (and I would go out on a limb and suggest that this is becoming a global trend) is overweight, borderline diabetic, stressed and are smokers; all factors which carry a very high risk of cardiac disorders. It is logical to argue that because of these health risks and problems, such individuals would contribute less than optimally to their organisations and thereby negatively impact their company’s productivity and hence the bottom line.

My wake up call to India Inc. is that our loss of potentially productive years due to the deaths, which occur due to cardiovascular diseases in people aged between 35-64 years, is one of the highest in the world. By 2030, this loss is expected to rise to 17.9 million productive years, which is 940% more than the loss estimated in the USA. A growth statistic that we simply should not aim to achieve!

However, all is not lost, there is hope yet. I call upon our business leaders to assess the health risks of their employees. These baseline metrics can be used to measure progress in the long run. They can also lead by example by setting an organisational culture of wellness and excellence within their company. As leaders their employees look up to them and if they are able to mentor and encourage them in their professional lives then surely it is their responsibility to do the same for their personal lives too, in order to ensure increased physical well-being.

Business leaders should make health and wellness programs accessible to their employees, with the appropriate incentive structures in place to inspire action. Yes, there are costs associated with it, but several studies from around the world have shown that the return on that investment can be as high as four times as much as the costs.

It is amazing how small behavioural changes can make a huge difference when it comes to health and wellness. For example, it has been shown that when salt-sensitive individuals lower their salt consumption, their blood pressure drops to lower levels, thus reducing their risk of cardiac arrest. Lactose intolerant individuals benefit from lowering milk consumption and have fewer days off work due to ill health. There are many examples of such simple, specific and highly effective nutritional and lifestyle interventions, which could generate fantastic returns for both individuals and institutions.

A good wellness program incorporates many tools such as biometric, psychometric and anthropometric information, family history, stress levels, lifestyle, sleep patterns, dietary preferences, genetic makeup, and various other parameters in developing a holistic solution that is engaging, rewarding and effective for the individuals. This improves the productivity and bottom line of the corporation. And, the program ultimately encourages habit formation through positive reinforcement, goal setting and a well-formed incentive structure. In some instances, leveraging technology and social media platforms using gamification techniques and behaviour modification has shown to be incredibly powerful.

India Inc. and Corporate Inc. globally, I have laid down the challenge. Who will be the first to accept? I guarantee you that ultimately we will all be the winners!

Posted by The Indian Economist