Do you know the difference between the terms chronic illness and chronic disease? That’s a heavy way to lead a blog, we know, but there’s a pretty clear divide that anyone managing employee healthcare needs to know.

Chronic illnesses and diseases may be slightly different, but make no mistake, they both have an enormous impact on healthcare costs across the country. When looking to contain healthcare costs and provide the best employee experience possible, chronic illnesses and diseases should be priority number one for anyone involved in population health.

What are chronic illnesses and disease and why are they so important?

Referring to medical literature, chronic disease is classified as a list of certain diseases that last for extended or indefinite amounts of time. On the other hand, chronic illnesses are the effects that happen based on living with those diseases. For example:

Diabetes is a chronic disease, but fatigue, weakness, or constant thirst due to that diabetes would be classified as a chronic illness.

The two terms are symbiotically linked, but different enough that it begs understanding because they affect a huge amount of people across the country. According to a 2014 study, nearly 60% of Americans are classified as having a chronic disease. Sometimes, the underlying diseases can be cured, but they often stick around, causing people to incur more healthcare costs as they deal with the chronic illnesses of their disease. In 2016, the state of Massachusetts did a study on the state’s healthcare spend for chronic illness. Their study projected that between 2016 and 2030, the state could spend as much as $870 billion on chronic disease alone. And because of chronic illnesses, 5% of the Massachusetts population accounted for 50% of its healthcare spending over the course of the study.

That continued healthcare spend is why chronic diseases and illnesses have such a big impact on businesses who self-fund their insurance claims. Treatment for diabetes or hypertension is a long process, and can end up inflating healthcare costs in the long run.

How the workplace can help fight against chronic illnesses and diseases

One of the bright sides in this situation is that many chronic diseases can be mitigated or outright avoided when people live a healthy and active lifestyle. Without genetic predisposition to issues like hypertension, most people can avoid needed that kind of treatment with a recommended diet and a regular activity schedule.

The reason that the workplace is so important in fighting against these illnesses is because of how much time the average person spends at their job. An overwhelming portion of their week where they could be moving or being active is spent in the workplace, so any activities or programs that can nudge adults toward the three-hours-per-week activity minimum for healthy living can make a huge impact. This can be as simple as reducing the time that employees spend sitting during the day or as involved as entering the office into a corporate fitness challenge.

Another area that employers can move the needle against chronic illness is nutrition. Employees and workplace snacks go together like… peanut butter and jelly. This affinity toward snacking during certain times of day is an opportunity for employers to offer snacks that promote healthier lifestyles. There are obvious changes like swapping out chocolates and other sweet candies that are high in processed sugars for fresh fruits, but even steps like introducing a filtered water machine next to the vending machine can give employees another option to change their habits. In the fight against chronic illnesses, behavioral change is one of the biggest targets that employers can go after. Getting employees to change a few small things about their routines can have a cumulative impact.

Steps against chronic illness in the workplace

We went into a few introductory steps that workplaces can take in their efforts against chronic illnesses, but for those looking to go a bit further, here are some more involved initiatives:

  • Onsite clinic
    For organizations that value occupational health and productivity, onsite clinics can be a huge differentiator in making sure that wellness is always top of mind. While generally being a larger investment, they serve many wellness purposes including: treating minor injuries and illnesses, diagnosing illnesses, and advising members on their overall health.
  • Sponsor an employee fitness challenge
    There are plenty of ways to pull off an employee fitness challenge, they don’t even have to be very formal affairs. Whether it’s a friendly push-up competition between members of the sales team, or a month-long challenge to see who can burn the most calories through their fitness trackers, these challenges can be fun and increase workplace camaraderie while reinforcing a belief in healthy living.
  • Gather and organize health population data
    In order to know the magnitude that chronic illnesses have on an employer’s healthcare costs, there is plenty of data that needs collecting. The right kind of health intelligence software, like Springbuk, can work with an employer’s insurance provider to collect the relevant health data pertaining to chronic illnesses and diseases. Springbuk goes even further, predicting how much money a specific illness will end up costing the employer before giving them suggestions on how to lower that future cost.

The common thread between most chronic illnesses and diseases is inactivity, so injecting a little fun and activity into the workplace can be extremely helpful in reversing the growing trend of chronic illness across the country.