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the quiet pandemics

The quiet pandemics we’re all responsible for

Has there ever been a year where we’ve talked so much about our health? What made it so unusual is that it isn’t just the NHS talking about health, or government or charities – it’s everyone.

It has taken a global health crisis on an unprecedented scale to start a conversation that’s been well overdue.

The shock of a rising death toll from Covid and the immediate impact it had on an already struggling NHS spurred us to debate, protect and prioritise health on a national scale.

From closing businesses and schools to limiting who we can see and where we can go, no measure was too extreme to deal with this health crisis – and rightly so, we put health first: stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives.

What shocks me is that many health scares of a similar magnitude in terms of deaths, impact on our NHS and individual’s wellbeing go almost unnoticed on a yearly basis.

Each year in the UK, 70,000 people die because of sedentary behaviour. The cost? £0.7bn per year spent by the NHS alone, and that’s not including the impact on businesses and society as a whole.

In the past, we’ve accepted these quiet pandemics as an almost inevitable part of life. This has to stop.

We learnt many difficult, often painful lessons in 2020. As individuals, we learnt how precious and precarious our health can be. As businesses we were shown all too clearly that the wealth of our businesses depends on the health of our people.

Painful as the lessons may have been, we have to take these learnings forward as we recover from Covid and build businesses, companies – even countries – that take a proactive, collaborative approach to health.

The first thing required is a shift in mindset. At the moment, we often see wellbeing as an optional extra – something to tack onto our day if there’s time. Businesses often see it as a “nice to have”, right alongside the free fruit and yoga classes.

But it’s so much more. Studies by LSE, BEIS, and others have repeatedly shown the link between wellbeing and productivity – something businesses desperately need right now. Business leaders have to stop seeing wellbeing as a business expense and start viewing it as a business critical investment.

As well as businesses stepping up, there’s an opportunity here to continue the collaboration we’ve seen throughout the Covid crisis and reward positive behaviours.

Each year the government spends billions incentivising businesses to deliver in certain areas – whether it’s skills, technology or R&D tax credits to encourage innovation. These schemes are vital in helping workplaces contribute to wider societal aims, but they’re missing an essential component – health and wellbeing.

You might have an employee who’s trained in all the right skills, who has all the technology they need at their fingertips, but if they’re struggling with their mental health that person will not be at their engaged, productive best. Wellbeing is a vital component.

There are some tentative suggestions as to how it might work. Pure Gym’s recent “Work out to help out” campaign, had the right kind of sentiment but still missed the bigger picture. Incentivising people to get back to gyms isn’t a health solution for the masses, it’s an economic stimulus package for a hard hit industry.  At Westfield Health, we have felt this pain as all of our corporate gyms across Europe have been closed for too long now. Whilst these kind of support initiatives are really important, we need to think bigger.

Targeting only those who already go to the gym misses the point entirely – it’s preaching to the choir. To make much-needed sweeping changes, we need to proactively and consistently engage those who don’t or can’t prioritise their health and wellbeing.

I do fully support the clamour for a “work out to help out” scheme but let’s make sure we include businesses in this scheme to help reach more people by encouraging them to invest in wellbeing programmes for their employees? What if on March 3rd the Chancellor announced in addition to the R&D tax credit scheme a Wellbeing Tax credit scheme to encourage and nudge businesses of all sizes to invest in their most important asset – the health of their people?  There are so many things we could and should be doing.

It’s an enormous task that touches not just on health but on some deep-rooted societal and economic inequalities. The size of the challenge is exactly why this won’t be solved by just government or just workplaces or individuals alone – it has to be a collective effort. We all own health.

I call on the Chancellor to create a bold budget for health that puts wellbeing first. I call on businesses to change their mindset when it comes to seeing wellbeing as a critical investment not an expense. I call on individuals to take the hard-won lessons from 2020 on board and to work together to take ownership of our health.

Together, we have the chance to prevent many more deaths a year and improve quality of life for generations to come – now that, would be a legacy to be proud of.

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