Why should employers be concerned about diabetes?

A few years ago I had my first contact with the devastating consequences of unmanaged diabetes. One day my neighbor mentioned that her toe had become black and was heading to the doctor.

Less than two months later, she had both legs amputated which left her disabled as she was just beginning retirement. Her life and the lives of those in her family were changed forever. Unfortunately, my neighbor did not heed the warnings of her doctor and was immersed in a culture that did not support healthy lifestyle choices.

As we continue to grow the workplace wellness movement in our city, I have been challenged by the growing epidemic of Type 2 diabetes in our nation and the results it is having on not only our workforce but our children. It is time that we as a Well City Milwaukee coalition of employers begin discussing this issue and its effects on our workplaces. We need to begin sharing ideas and resources on how we are working to help employees and their families combat this devastating disease through our employee wellness programs.

On Oct. 23, Well City Milwaukee hosted our city’s first Diabetes in the Workplace Summit. The 3-hour event was presented in collaboration with the American Diabetes Association’s Stop Diabetes at Work Program, the YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee’s Diabetes Prevention Program and sponsored by Novo Nordisk. For those of you who were unable to attend this inaugural event, I’d like to share some thoughts and insights we experienced through this blog.

Let’s look at some statistics. 29 million of all adults in the nation have diabetes. Medical expenditures for people with diabetes are 2.3 times higher than for those without. In 2012, our nation spent $245 billion on direct diabetes care with indirect costs amounting to $69 billion. In 2009 deaths related to diabetes were greater than that of breast and lung cancer combined. In Milwaukee County alone, over 240,000 people were diagnosed with diabetes with $1.19 billion dollars spent in 2011.

What is worse than the costs associated with this disease is that unmanaged diabetes leads to kidney failure, limb amputations and blindness. People with diabetes are 2-4 times more likely to die of a stroke or heart attack. Diabetes is a silent and powerful killer.

According to the American Diabetes Association, in a company of 1000 employees, 100 have diabetes with 27 of those undiagnosed. What is more alarming is that 250 employees have pre-diabetes. If a person with pre-diabetes is diagnosed with diabetes, health costs will increase 50 percent for that person.

Like the frog being cooked in a pot with water whose temperature is slowly rising, pre-diabetes masks a condition that is more serious than people, and even some doctors think. Eighty-six million Americans or 37 percent of adults in our nation have pre-diabetes. There is currently a 15-percent annual progression rate of pre-diabetes to diabetes. This means, if we do nothing, one in three adults will develop Type 2 diabetes by 2050.

So why should we as a group of employers care? Aside from increased health costs, simply put, sick people are less energetic and less productive than healthy people. This affects us all.

Yes, according to this data, it is time we as a coalition of employers begin considering ways to combat this devastating chronic disease through our wellness programs. How can we begin helping people prevent the onset of Type 2 diabetes?

How can we help people take steps early so they can avoid the devastating effects of this disease?

Fortunately, evidence shows that when people make simple lifestyle changes early – weight loss, increased physical activity and healthier eating patterns – the onset of Type 2 diabetes can be prevented. Our wellness programs can make a difference!

During the Diabetes in the Workplace Summit we learned about cost-effective resources available through the American Diabetes Association and the YMCA. We were also fortunate to learn from the wellness programs of the City of Milwaukee, Children’s Hospital and MGIC – three organizations who have taken steps to offer employees support to help manage or prevent diabetes at work and have begun measuring impact. We mentored one another and explored opportunities and barriers to behavior change. We discussed the importance of careful planning as we encourage behavior change that will enhance employee engagement.

If you are considering addressing diabetes in your workplace, the first place to start is by looking at your population. What are your insurance claims telling you? What are your health risk assessments/ biometrics telling you? Have you surveyed your employees? Are they interested in change? What level is your wellness program at? Is your organization ready to change? Once you determine readiness of your population and organization, look to resources to help you design interventions that will align with your organization’s strategy, always remembering that wellness programs are for the wellbeing of the employees. As David Hunnicutt, CEO of WELCOA says, “We do wellness with people and for people – not to people.”

As we grow the workplace wellness movement in our city, we let’s continue to encourage one another that our wellness programs are not just about saving healthcare dollars for our companies. We are leaders in our city. Our continued dedication to creating impactful employee wellness programs can truly save lives.

Let’s keep pressing on for a healthy Milwaukee! Together we are making change.

Gail Bennett is the director of Well City Milwaukee.

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