Health screening for younger staff can head off problems

If you read nothing else, read this …

  • The foundations of coronary heart disease, osteoporosis and many cancers are laid down in the teens and early 20s, depending on diet and other risk factors.
  • Stress-related ill-health and dependency on drink or drugs are putting more employees under the age of 50 at risk of severe health problems.
  • Health screening can target all the key risk factors associated with the most common chronic and serious diseases.
  • Catching health risks at an early stage can reduce long-term absenteeism and future healthcare benefit claims.


Younger staff can live stressful, hedonistic lifestyles. Potential health problems can be screened now to prevent future illnesses, says Jennifer Paterson

Employers typically offer health screening to staff aged over 50, who are thought to be at higher risk of developing health problems. But younger generations are also affected by a number of health conditions, often triggered by stressful and hedonistic lifestyles or obesity levels. Heavy alcohol consumption, for example, is causing a rise in liver disease among young people.

Sue Weir, chief executive at Medicash, says: “Statistically, younger members of staff may be less likely to suffer a serious illness, but the risk of severe health problems and absenteeism is increasing as more staff under 50 suffer with stress-related ill-health and dependency on drink or drugs. Adopting an inclusive approach to health screening means everyone can benefit.”

It makes good business sense to look after young staff, some of whom may be future executives of the organisation. Dr Mark Simpson, medical director of Axa Icas, says: “If someone is going to stay with the same employer for a long time, the organisation is picking up not only the primary GP costs, but also the secondary care costs. So there is greater incentive to try to manage things like obesity, which can be associated with diabetes and long-term healthcare costs.”

Health screening is an effective way to change employees’ attitudes towards their health, which, ultimately, will protect the employer’s bottom-line profits. Colin Bullen, head of health and risk benefits at Hewitt Associates, says: “If an employer can control health risks, and therefore reduce absence and improve the health of an organisation, it will achieve an overall gain.”

Identifying risks

Health screening can identify risks associated with the most common serious complaints, such as heart disease, cancer and osteoporosis. Catching such problems before they become serious can reduce future medical insurance claims and long-term absence.

Meanwhile, screening perks that analyse cholesterol, iron levels and blood pressure while checking for diabetes can flag up the need for a change of diet, more exercise or smoking cessation. Some screenings also involve a cardiac risk assessment.

Jill Davies, chief executive at Westfield Health, says: “The next generation is living a more hectic and stressful lifestyle than ever before and, as a result, their health may be compromised. Introducing health screening to younger staff members can target these problems before they escalate and ensure the workforce remains capable of coping with the daily challenges that come their way.”

Well-man and well-woman clinics are also an effective way for occupational health services to target different age ranges.

Sexually transmitted infection

More employers are also offering free on-site screening for the sexually transmitted infection (STI) chlamydia. “It is the UK’s most commonly diagnosed STI,” says Axa Icas’s Simpson. “The National Chlamydia Screening Programme’s approach is novel because it is easier to come and find people in the workplace.”

Employers may have come round to the idea of offering health screening for different groups of staff, but getting them to take up the perk can be difficult. Justin Crossland, senior consultant at Towers Watson, says: “Screenings as an employer-paid benefit have a fairly low take-up. Employers can offer it to all staff, but might find only 10% participate.”

To raise the take-up of health screening, employers need to change the mindset of young employees. Dr Soniya Saha, medical director at Screenetics, says: “The challenge is to shift young people’s views, to make health relevant to them. Most people are unaware the foundations of diseases like coronary heart disease, osteoporosis and many cancers are laid down in your teens and early 20s, depending on diet and other risk factors. It is important that awareness is raised among the younger population, and health screening is a good way to do that.”

Take-up of screening

Medicash’s Weir says take-up of on-site screening is much higher than if employers require staff to pay for it initially and claim back the cost. Staff with diagnosed health issues will invariably take advantage of workplace screening, but the trick is to engage those who do not think they need it. Amy Osmond, senior employee benefits consultant at Lorica Consulting, says: “It is about trying to tap into people who are not fit and healthy, to get them in for a screening.”

By contrast, Carl Laidler, director of screening programmes at Prevent, says he is surprised by the high number of young people who request health screening. “One of the reasons is that young people wonder what impact their lifestyle may have on their health, but health screening is broader than just looking at blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose,” he says. “It is an opportunity to look at stress, how to cope with it better and to ensure young people use all the preventative actions, such as exercise, good diet and breathing techniques.”

A successful health screening programme should be part of a co-ordinated wellbeing programme, no matter what ages of staff it concerns. “It must be focused on getting those high-risk individuals to start addressing their health,” says Hewitt’s Bullen.


Case study: Dennis sees big take-up of health tests

When Dennis Publishing appointed Screenetics to provide on-site salary sacrifice health screening to its 300 staff for the first time, it saw take-up exceed 60%, rising to 75% for employees under the age of 40. The average age of staff at the company is 32.

Alison Hunter, HR director at Dennis Publishing, says: “The younger generation have never been bothered about their health, the same way they have never been bothered about pension schemes and private medical insurance.
“We have worked hard to communicate the value of these benefits to them. People are actively making changes to their lifestyles after receiving their test results.”

The 60-minute session of tests includes: an analysis of cholesterol, diabetes, iron levels, cardiac risk assessment, a prostate blood test for men, a full body composition test, and a bone density scan. Results can be accessed and tracked confidentially online.


Read more on healthcare benefits