Blogs & Comment

Diabetes not your problem? Think again

November 14 is World Diabetes Day. The size of the problem will shock you, but if you care about your business you need to act.

(Photo: Catherine MacBride/Getty Images)

Today I have one message for Canadians: If you think diabetes is something that will happen to someone else, you’re wrong. There’s an alarming rise in diabetes in our country, and it’s going to cost you—and your business—even if you don’t develop the disease yourself.

Look around. Canadians are getting fatter as a result of eating more unhealthy foods and exercising less. Fifty-nine per cent of adult Canadians are either overweight or obese and, among children, obesity rates have almost tripled in the last 25 years. If trends continue, we can expect 70% of Canadians 35-44 years old to be overweight or obese in the next 20 years. And as obesity grows, so does the number of people with diabetes. By 2020, it’s expected that 10% of the population will be living with diabetes.

But it’s too late to change behaviour once diabetes is diagnosed as the organ damage is already done. So if we don’t take action now, today’s kids and tomorrow’s workers will be the first generation in history to live shorter lives than their parents, not due to war but to complications from diabetes.

The cure for diabetes is prevention.

This is why World Diabetes Day exists. It’s a wake-up call for everyone—both for those who don’t understand what they’re risking by packing on the pounds and for those who aren’t at risk and feel it’s not worth worrying about, or can’t do anything to prevent.

How does diabetes cost business?
The Public Health Agency of Canada estimates the total cost of diabetes at $2.5 billion in 2000. That’s a conservative estimate that excludes the costs associated with complications from diabetes which include kidney failure, blindness, vascular disease (which can lead to limb amputation) and heart attack. Factor in these long-term complications and the total cost of diabetes is almost four times the current estimate.

It further costs business in lost work productivity via increased sick days and premature death even before diabetes develops in the obese population.

A 2010 Duke University Study led by Eric Finkelstein and published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine quantified the per capita cost of obesity among full-time workers. The per capita cost of obesity and its related risk to diabetes was as high as $17,000 for people whose BMI (body mass index) was over 40 (morbid obesity) compared to those employees of normal weight. But what is particularly noteworthy about this study is that it represents a first in quantifying the incremental costs of what Finkelstein calls ‘presenteeism.’ Finkelstein defines presenteeism as the lost time at work when an employee arrives at work not feeling well, and the average frequency of losing concentration, repeating a job, working more slowly than usual, feeling fatigued at work, or doing nothing at work.

In the study, presenteeism accounted for as much as 56% of the $17,000 cost for women and 68% in men. Individuals with a BMI greater than 35 (medical obesity) accounted for a disproportionate 61% of the organization’s total costs, given that they only represented 37% of the obese employee population.

What employers can do to reverse the trend
There is a business case for investments in biometric screening days (weight, blood pressure, blood sugar monitoring), weight management and wellness programs in the workplace. Obesity presents not only a medical cost to society, but a productivity cost to a business organization. Promote healthy food choices in employee snack shops, vending machines and cafeterias. Encourage a culture of wellness and of senior management walking this talk.

What you can do at home
Be healthy role models for your children. Live a healthy lifestyle and be of healthy weight. Prepare healthier meals. Get educated about reading the labels on food products. Reduce simple carbohydrate loads, including diet pops. Join healthy cooking classes in your community such as those led by the Canadian Diabetes Association.

What schools can do
Make learning about food mandatory. Nutritional science should be included in biology, chemistry and math courses—and not just mentioned in gym class. Bring back ‘home economics’ to teach children how to prepare healthy meals. Kids must understand that everything they eat matters. Exercise is not optional: physical education courses should be mandatory until high school graduation. Teachers must walk the talk, too, by maintaining a healthy weight and taking part with their kids in physical activities at school. 

Communities must get involved
Develop programs leveraging technology to help us all learn, track and reward healthy lifestyle not just in school but also in the workplace. The food industry must teach us how to eat better by offering and encouraging us to make better choices.

Our society is getting fatter and older and the burden to our health system is only going to grow. World Diabetes Day is not just a day to show support for those who suffer now or to be reminded of the escalating numbers associated with diabetes. Rather, it’s a day to reflect on what each of us can do at home, at school and in the workplace to prevent it.