“Employers are the missing link to real societal change”: Dr Chatterjee on business leaders’ role in the ‘stress pandemic’

Dr Chatterjee throws the spotlight on the stress pandemic and asks – can employers influence societal change?

Yugi the Giraffe - 26 April 2022

As signs emerge that the Covid-19 pandemic is finally starting to ease, the spotlight is being thrown on the other global health emergency: the crisis in mental and physical wellbeing.

“Data shows that about 80% of what a doctor sees in any given day is in some way related to our collective modern lifestyles,” explains Dr Chatterjee, YuLife’s Chief Wellbeing Officer, a GP of more than 20 years, advocate of lifestyle medicine, TedX speaker and podcast host. “We are drowning in a tsunami of lifestyle-driven illness: anxiety, depression, migraine, headaches, gut issues, type two diabetes, heart problems and obesity. Lifestyle plays a huge role.”

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the World Health Organisation had described stress as “the health epidemic of the twenty-first century”. “The last two years have exacerbated the problem,” Dr Chatterjee says. “The fear, anxiety, worry and change in living dynamics have made the situation worse.”

“I've created a Royal College of GP-accredited lifestyle medicine course,” says Chatterjee. “On BBC One series Doctor in the House, I showed the UK population how conditions can all be made significantly better, if not reversed, in just six weeks of small lifestyle changes. I love, through my podcast or books, talking to thousands of members of the public and helping them make better choices in their lives. But the missing link, the big missing piece, is employers.”

Although many already understand the business benefits, and are motivated to positively influence employee lifestyle, rolling-out employee health and wellbeing schemes, the business benefits haven’t been felt. According to HR Magazine’s Employee Benefits Watch Report, on average, only 20% of employees engage with health and wellbeing programmes. And yet, Business for Health reported in 2021 that employer-led micro-interventions have the potential to reduce chronic disease burden by up to 20%.

On average, only 20% of employees engage with health and wellbeing programmes.

“I think the pandemic has made us realise how much our work lifestyle impacts our personal health and wellbeing,” says Chatterjee. “Given how much time people spend at work, employers are uniquely placed to make a huge impact. If employers can make small changes and make it easier for their staff to make changes, it's going to have a really transformative effect.“

Results of the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer, which detail a shift in trust from government to employers during the pandemic, indicate that business leaders are now in a stronger position to influence change than before. With pressures on the NHS, many non-life-threatening, but stress-inducing and potentially life-impacting conditions are being left untreated. There is an opportunity for business leaders to fill an emerging social gap.

The business impacts of the stress pandemic

Stress is currently the fourth most common cause of short-term sick leave (surpassed by minor illnesses such as colds, musculoskeletal injuries and Covid-19 isolation), with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety in fifth place. Looking at long-term sickness, mental health is the primary cause of workplace absence, followed by musculoskeletal injuries, stress, acute medical conditions and minor illnesses.

“There was a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2013 that suggested that up to 90% of what a doctor like me sees in any given day is in some way related to stress,” says Dr Chatterjee. “Whether it’s from your personal life, your work life, your to-do list or your relationships, there is a real physical change in your body. It affects every single organ system in the body and can impact your brain, mood, gut, digestion and sex drive. I recognise that, as a doctor, I wasn't really taught how to help my patients manage stress.”

How can businesses mitigate the impact of stress?

In his journey to discover the causes and treatments for stress, Dr Chatterjee has travelled the world and interviewed leading scientists and researchers: “What I’ve realised is that a few small things that don’t cost much, that don’t take long to do, can have a huge impact on lowering our stress levels. That, in turn, has a positive knock-on effect on our physical health and our mental wellbeing.”

Pressure is an intrinsic element of many demanding, fast-paced jobs – the key approach is to increase resilience to stressors, says Dr Chatterjee. The trick is to measure, and influence, employees’ behaviour health: “The problem with measuring health is, when you're looking at things upstream or downstream, by the time someone needs, let's say counselling or psychotherapy, they're often already pretty sick,” he explains. “They might be really stressed, close to burnout, and they want help. I think there's a real opportunity to get involved earlier, and if we prioritise healthy behaviours that are simple and easy to do, you're going to find that, naturally, fewer people need to access those downstream services.”

How to influence behavioural health

“We know that going for a 20-minute walk at lunchtime would be beneficial, yet many employees sit at their desks and work through lunch,” says Dr Chatterjee. “We know that a little meditation each day helps to focus the mind and get rid of anxiety and worry. We know that not looking at emails in the hour before going to bed is helpful for sleep.”

And yet, people struggle to make the changes they want to make. “Is it that they don't desire it enough? With some people that's definitely a role – they often need things to get so bad in their life to make a change,” he says. “But I think it's not the whole answer, because it forgets the important role of our environment in determining our choices. If everyone around you is behaving and acting in a certain way, you are very likely to just go with the flow.”

Dr Chatterjee believes that nurturing small shifts in lifestyle, in conjunction with a system of rewards, is key to encouraging behaviours that enhance physical and mental wellbeing.

“Big multinational companies like Amazon or Netflix use the science of behaviour change to get you to buy more or to watch more,” Chatterjee points out. “But when it comes to health, we don't really follow those rules. We think in some ways that we can just leave it up to motivation and willpower. We should be focusing more on behavioural health – how do we help our workforce to have healthier behaviours?”

Driving change in behavioural health, says Dr Chatterjee, is possible. “Negative emotions wire-in habits or compulsive emotions,” he explains. “If you feel sad, get a chocolate bar and find that eating it makes you feel better, then you’re creating a loop in your brain. The next time you feel sad, stressed or lonely, you know that if you eat chocolate, you’ll feel better. It reinforces a habit that you don't want to be doing regularly.”

Dr Chatterjee sums-up: “This approach works for positive habits, too. If you carry out an activity that’s good for your health, and take a moment to acknowledge that positive feeling, it’s much more likely that you’re going to repeat that behaviour.

It’s an understanding of this behaviour change that led Chatterjee to partner with YuLife. Delivering group risk insurance reinforced with a package of employee health and wellbeing benefits, YuLife encourages positive behaviour changes through its app. With small achievements in daily health and wellbeing building to rewards with leading brands, lifestyle changes become routine and the risk of ill health and absenteeism to business is lowered – with the data to prove it: “Its app helps people to recognise the reward. It's an engaging app that makes health fun and simple, by applying the rules of behaviour change.”

A business case, and a societal case

With the cost of living crisis now exacerbating anxieties generated by the pandemic, looking after employee wellbeing has never been more critical. Driving positive change around physical and mental health is no longer simply about mitigating risk. It’s a core element of building motivated teams with the potential to thrive in a turbulent economic climate.

He believes that employers who help teams to make small, beneficial lifestyle changes are placed in a “win-win” situation. “Where an employer gives time and thought to engaging their workforce, and looking after the health and wellbeing of their workforce, there’s a business case to say they’re going to get better employees who are more productive, creative and take less sick leave. But there’s also a beautiful societal case – it’s the right thing to do.”

How can you protect your business from the stress pandemic? Download our eBook, where Dr Rangan Chatterjee and Dr Peter Hovard discuss behavioural health, and the critical role technology can play in driving health and wellbeing benefits engagement, to find out.

Yugi the Giraffe

Yugi is our YuLife mascot. Like all giraffes they've got a big heart – in fact the biggest heart of all land animals.