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The health costs of an employers’ economy

Peter Kelly

EVERY day I counsel someone in my pharmacy in relation to a common ailment that they just can’t seem to shake off. Coughs that linger for months, viral infections that a string of prescription antibiotics failed to touch. It’s so common that I can almost predict the answers to my line of questioning before I have asked the questions.

The first question is always the same, would it be stress related? Are you stressed? The reply is nearly always: “No I’m not stressed, well no more than usual”.

I then ask if they are sleeping well. The reply is usually yes. I then ask, if they are sleeping 8-9 hours a night, all the way through without waking up? The answer to this is always no.

When I then ask the person why they think they are not sleeping through the night without waking up. The reply I get is stress — work stress. Now, I must state I work in an affluent part of London. These are healthy people in ‘good’ jobs. I then get them to talk through their daily routines for me. From the point of view of looking after your health, their routines are ridiculous, but common.

To live a healthy life you need to:

  • Sleep 8-9 hours a night.
  • Freshly prepare your food as much as possible.
  • Exercise for an absolute minimum of 20 minutes per day.
  • Put time aside on a regular basis (weekly) to have fun and to relax.

A relaxing activity is one where you stop thinking, or think very little. Relaxed people don’t think or worry a lot. Anxious people do think and worry a lot, and anxiety is not good for your health.

In the typical lifestyle I see, the person does exercise, they go to the gym, they have fun, they drink with their friends, and they go on holidays when they can. But, they never get enough sleep, and while their diet can be good, it varies, and there can be busy periods where take-aways become the norm. Relaxation is non-existent: it is a distant place they’ve heard about once, but have no idea how to get there.

Coughs and other viral infections should typically last a week, and plenty of water and a little rest and relaxation should see it off. Your body is designed to heal itself: you cut your hand, the blood coagulates, forms a scab, scab falls off and new skin appears, the cut has healed. Viral infections can be a way of your body saying you are doing too much. Antibiotics have no effect on common viruses: your body beats the virus. But, for your body to beat the virus you need to rest and relax to facilitate your body in its battle against the virus.

Why are people not simply resting and relaxing to beat these viruses? They don’t know how to: they don’t know how to sleep properly, they don’t know how to relax, and they don’t know how to switch off their thoughts and do less.

We have had nearly a decade of economic downturn and austerity, which has created a work culture where going ‘the extra mile’ is no longer an occasional expectation when some unforeseen event happens, it is now a constant expectation. There is an entire work force that is knowingly planting the seeds to future ill-health with over working and stress. They know they are doing it because their young ‘fit’ bodies are struggling to shake off minor viral infections.

Today the gains of this stressed out, over working workforce go to the employers, but tomorrow the costs of this culture will fall on the health service and the tax payer. This is the unseen health cost of an employers’ economy.

Peter Kelly is a community pharmacist in London

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