What oral health can reveal about an employee’s health and wellbeing


Need to know

  • Regular dental check-ups can prevent oral health issues but also identify other problems, such as diabetes, heart disease and even mouth cancer.
  • Facilitating access to dental checks can also reduce staff absence levels and engage employees with their health.
  • Employers have been reluctant to fund this but this is slowly changing.

Dental health is one of the things many people take for granted, only visiting the dentist when something has gone wrong. Yet, for employers, this attitude can be problematic because leaving the diagnosis of conditions too late can mean more appointments in the long run and potentially result in extended time off work.

Aside from the preventative angle, regular check-ups can also help to identify other, even more serious illnesses. Neil Sikka, a dentist at Bupa UK, says: “Gum disease, which can go unnoticed by patients, can be linked to heart disease and diabetes.”

Teeth grinding can also be an indicator of stress and anxiety, he adds.

Potentially even more serious is the threat of oral cancer, and here the need for early diagnosis is critical. Pam Whelan, head of corporate at Denplan, says: “Although more than 2,000 people die each year as a result of mouth cancer, for those patients detected at an early stage, the survival rate improves from 50% to 90%.”

Identifying serious illnesses early on can also help keep employers’ private medical insurance (PMI) claims down, helping to keep rates under control, she adds.

Employee encouragement

The problem for many employers, however, is that most people do not have sufficiently regular check-ups when left to their own devices. YouGov research, Dental plans 2014, published in August 2014, found the most common reason for failing to do this is cost, cited by 46%, with 23% saying they are unable to get an appointment near where they live.

The onus is therefore on employers to facilitate more regular check-ups. Carol Porter, head of commercial at The Health Insurance Group, says: “An [employer]-funded dental plan can allow staff to visit a dentist convenient to where they work, rather than having to travel long distances to see an NHS dentist, so minimising the time needed away from the office for regular check-ups and treatment.”

There are a number of options open to employers, ranging from facilitating access to treatment through a cash plan to full on-site dental provision. Claire Ginnelly, managing director of Premier Choice Group, says: “It is becoming more common for employers to offer some sort of dental insurance as part of their benefits package.

“Offering a comprehensive dental insurance policy funded by the employer is the best option to help improve the dental health of employees, but even a cash plan can help because it will offer a fixed sum of money for a 12-month period, which should cover at least NHS check-ups and may offer some assistance to other treatment.”

Employees tend to value dental cover as a benefit, because they can see that they are likely to use it, which is not always the case with PMI.

On-site options

Some employers are even looking at on-site provision, either shared with other organisations or as a commercial practice in its own right. Ryan Hall, senior strategy consultant at Capita Employee Benefits, says: “This can allow both rapid access to treatment for employees and a new profit centre for the employer.”

The problem, though, is that not enough businesses have bought into the concept of funding this themselves, despite the clear benefits, says Rachel Western, principal at Aon Employee Benefits. “Typically, dental products, where offered, are done so on a self-pay or flex arrangement, and the focus when engaging employees has rarely been on the impact good oral health can have on early intervention or diagnosis of medical conditions,” she adds.

Where organisations do choose to implement schemes, however, it is vital that these are promoted effectively to staff. “Employee communications are key,” says Whelan. “A one-size-fits-all communication plan will not have the same impact as tailored communication plans, which demonstrate a firm’s understanding and consideration of its workforce and how to get through to them. For example, a predominantly young workforce might be more receptive to information via social media, or may use their smartphones much more than an older workforce.”

This should, in turn, lead to more motivated employees who have less time off work, and where any cases of more serious diseases have a better chance of being spotted early on. “We are seeing an increase in the number of employers that are interested in talking about these sort of policies,” says Ginnelly. “They understand that not only do they help with absenteeism, due to the connection between dental and overall wellbeing, but they also help attract and retain good-quality staff. It is becoming a popular benefit that is very well received by staff.”

BNP ParibusCase study: BNP Paribas offers attractive dental proposition to employees

Working in a competitive sector, financial organisation BNP Paribas UK knows it needs to have a compelling benefits proposition to compete for and retain talent.

The organisation offers employer-paid private medical insurance (PMI) to all employees and their families, and has adopted a similar approach to dental cover. Thomas Hiles, group benefits manager, says: “Within our legal structure in the UK, we have a lot of businesses in very diverse areas. Having paid-for dental cover is less common outside of London but, even within the investment banking community, it’s unusual to have it as core.”

BNP Paribas offers all its employees the second-highest package available through Bupa’s scheme, and gives employees the ability to upgrade to the top level should they choose to. It has also negotiated a bespoke policy with Bupa, which allows employees to access major treatment without having to wait for the standard period after joining the business.

As well as being able to identify and treat any dental issues, regular check-ups could also identify other issues that may require treatment under the PMI scheme, says Hiles. “Things such as teeth grinding are common for many people in our sector, and that is often quite an easy identifier of stress,” he says. “A good dentist can also often spot other changes in people, so it could help the private medical plan by picking up claims earlier.”

The organisation uses the scheme as a recruitment and retention tool, particularly when looking to attract people from overseas where state dental provision may be superior to that provided in the UK. “It’s definitely a benefit we wouldn’t be able to remove,” he says.

Nigel CarterViewpoint: Employers can help raise awareness of oral health among staff

An unhealthy workplace, physically and mentally, normally equals time off work and lost productivity. Thousands of people miss work because of their oral health every year.

Frustratingly, most problems with teeth and gums are preventable with a good oral health routine. Despite this, research conducted by the Oral Health Foundation in 2013 found that around 7% of the UK’s 29 million-strong workforce have called in sick with teeth problems at least once in the past five years. Staggeringly, this means that poor oral health costs the UK economy around £36m every year.

However, poor oral health is not just about toothache and decay. It has a much wider impact on general bodily health than one may think. Research over the past decade has revealed growing evidence linking poor oral health to serious health conditions, including heightened risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes, all of which account for many more days off work.

There are many simple and effective ways to help raise awareness of oral health among staff and prevent problems such as these. One of the simplest is to make leaflets and other information available around a workplace, these can be reminders about tooth brushing, visiting the dentist or even the relationship between smoking and oral health.

Employers can also ensure they allow people time off to have regular dental check-ups or even arrange dental visits from local dental teams to help educate employees on the importance of good oral health. Some workplaces also offer benefits such as dental plans.

Workplaces are encouraged to get involved in campaigns such as National Smile Month, which helps spread important oral health messages by getting people actively engaged in fun activities. These can also be very effective in spreading messages to employees’ family and friends.

If an employee is concerned about their oral health, employers can help them by passing on details about the Oral Health Foundations’ free and independent Dental Helpline service, which can offer advice and information on many aspects of oral health.

Dr Nigel Carter is chief executive officer at the Oral Health Foundation