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Promoting healthy nutrition: an opportunity for occupational health specialists

By Steven Pearson-Brown, PAM Group

Published 21 December 2021

Health promotion has been linked to increased productivity, reduced health risks, and a decrease in health care utilisation (Baiker et al) especially important with the current load on the NHS! Occupational Health (OH) has an important role in supporting organisations through monitoring the health of employees and prevention of ill health (NHS), a public health opportunity and duty. To do this, OH develop and implement programmes that support healthy lifestyles, particularly in areas of healthy eating, weight management, physical activity, mental health, and stress management 2 . Especially important due to the impact of the pandemic with associated influence on physical and mental wellbeing.

Healthy eating is of particular importance in managing a range of health conditions including prevention and OH professionals play a significant role in this as testified by Toothaker et al (2018). Enabling employees to have the knowledge and skills to make healthy lifestyle choices assists with the prevention or management of chronic disease which could have a significant impact on an individual at work. Any interventions and/or advice in delivering an awareness of nutrition and its role in health is a valuable addition to the OH professional’s toolbox.

There is a direct link between poor nutritional intake, dietary excess and the development and prevention of several non-communicable diseases, such as cardiovascular disease (CVD) and Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus (T2DM) (Dudek 2014). CVD and T2DM are two major conditions that are a financial burden on the NHS and the wider economy through absence, early retirement, and reduced productivity. Estimated costs to the NHS from CVD are £7.4 billion per year (PHE), with T2DM costing £8.8 billion per year (PHE); collectively costing the UK industry £31.1 billion each year.

Employees who consumed a healthy diet had a lower incidence of multiple health conditions, including, iron-deficiency anaemia, hypertension, dyslipidaemia, osteoporosis, T2DM, oral disease, constipation, diverticular disease, and some cancers (Grodner, et al., 2016).

Making every contact count to promote health: During health surveillance, health assessments and preemployment clinical assessments, the calculation of an individual’s body mass index (BMI) is frequently required as a marker of health and potential health risks, in addition to the safe deployment to undertake a specific task at work. This presents an opportunity to discuss nutritional intake with employees. Many factors impact an individual’s diet including knowledge, social support, finances, and access (Lutz et al 2014). Understanding this and the variety of food and drinks consumed over time in settings such as workplaces, restaurants, and homes,(Reed 2014) alongside the social, cultural, and environmental factors of diet is an important skill for clinicians.

Of course, focusing purely on body weight would be missing a vital component of the role of nutrition in health as weight is only part of the picture. Indeed, a common misconception is that only underweight people can be malnourished, but malnutrition can happen at any weight.

Whilst non-communicable diseases occur at any weight or intake of nutrients, evidence shows us that early detection can be valuable in preventing their progression to further complications. Even routine screening may potentially make the conditions avoidable. Several studies have looked at nutritional interventions focussing on the workplace to improve the health of individuals and promote positive outputs, such as a reduction in absenteeism. Since many individuals spend a large portion of their time at work, often eating at least one meal there, well-planned support can be useful to support weight management, improving healthy behaviours and prevention of obesity,(Melian et al 2021) and may also serve as a valuable component in occupational health and safety (Grimani 2019).

Malnutrition refers to deficiencies, excesses, or imbalances in a person’s intake of energy and/or nutrients. The term malnutrition addresses 3 broad groups of conditions: [1] undernutrition, which includes wasting (low weight-for-height), stunting (low height-for-age) and underweight (low weight-for-age);[2] micronutrient-related malnutrition, which includes micronutrient deficiencies (alack of important vitamins and minerals) or micronutrient excess;and [3] overweight, obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases (such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers.) (WHO)

What does this mean

Incorporating nutritional screening and providing education, as a part of occupational health could provide a valuable tool to support employees to make healthier choices and improve productivity, employee output and quality of life.

Steven Pearson-Brown, PAM Group

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