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COVID-19 highlights the costs of ignoring lifestyle-related diseases

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The COVID-19 pandemic has forced policymakers, employers and individuals to take swift and far-reaching action, as exponential infection rates caught our attention and demanded a response.

However, the sobering reality is that COVID-19 is the proverbial tip of the health burden iceberg. It is an accelerated cautionary tale of what is to come if we choose to ignore the slow-growing lifestyle-related diseases lurking and growing under the surface.

In a typical year, lifestyle-related disease costs the global economy 43 working days per person due to poor health and premature death; 5% productivity loss per worker with chronic conditions; and 15% of gross domestic product – which is two to five times more than the expected GDP impact from the pandemic. Even as we overcome COVID-19, the rise of mental health conditions and non-communicable diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes is reshaping households, companies and countries.

Given that the looming cost is so large, why have we lacked a sense of urgency in tackling these lifestyle-related diseases? The answer lies in simple organizational cognitive biases. At an individual level, we make profound cognitive errors about how long we will live, how healthy we are, and what will kill us. Organizations make similar errors in assessing workforce health.

One key cognitive error is optimism bias. Organizational leaders may be broadly aware of the rise of lifestyle-related diseases and the threat they pose to productivity and ultimately mortality. However, it can be hard for them to imagine that their own organization will experience a significantly negative event at an aggregate level as a result of these conditions. In contrast, COVID-19 hit the world with such pace and scale, it has been impossible to ignore the likelihood of its impact.

Other errors include present bias and hyperbolic discounting. This is where leaders give disproportionate weight to the cost of preventive health measures incurred now, versus the later reward of a productive and healthy workforce. As a result, they choose to minimize spend today. In the case of COVID-19, there simply is no option to opt out of preventive measures such as lockdowns, social distancing and wearing of masks.

The final influence is saliency bias. The tangible nature of COVID-19 symptoms, such as coughing and sneezing, coupled with its infectious nature, means we pay attention. Simply put, the hidden symptoms associated with many lifestyle related diseases don’t carry a sufficiently weighty shock factor, and have resulted in a weaker call to action.

We ignore the rise of these diseases at our peril. Workforce sustainability is at risk. Given the rise of non-communicable diseases and mental health conditions, one can imagine that employee health will become the equivalent of a scarce skill. And accordingly, it will become increasingly difficult and expensive to buy healthy talent.

So, while we will eventually make our way to the other side of this pandemic, we can no longer go back to business as usual. The only sustainable solution will be to adopt real measures to improve workforce health. If companies want to win in a competitive marketplace, the sooner they start learning how to do this effectively, the better.

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