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Diabetes programs battle other physical, mental drains on workplace

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SAN FRANCISCO — Employers should help workers prevent and manage diabetes before it weighs on productivity and drives up medical costs, benefits and health experts say.

In addition to increasing health costs, failing to address workers' diabetes can lead to stress and depression, as well as increased presenteeism, which means an employee is at work but not productive, Dr. Suneil Koliwad, president of the American Diabetes Association San Francisco Bay Area Leadership Board, said during a panel discussion Tuesday at the Integrated Benefits Institute's Annual Forum in San Francisco.

“Diabetes is really related to the biggest causes of death in people in the United States, and that includes all cancers combined,” Dr. Koliwad said. Because diabetes is a “silent” condition, “until you have that heart attack, you may not know that you have diabetes, much less the heart disease that went along with it.”

According to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, 29.1 million people, or 9.3% of the U.S. population, have diabetes. Another 86 million have higher-than-normal sugar levels that put them at higher risk of developing diabetes.

In 2012, medical costs and costs related to work loss, disability and premature death that were attributable to diabetes totaled $245 billion, according to the CDC.

“Diabetes overall is associated with much higher absence and lower job performance, and also extended periods of disability,” said Alexandra Dumont, assistant vice president of product development at Wellesley, Massachusetts-based Sun Life Financial Inc. She suggested using employee assistance programs and health advocacy programs with nurse case managers to help employees address diabetes and change their behavior.

“It's incumbent on us to inquire and produce workplaces where people can get themselves diagnosed, can learn, can engage in preventative processes and can get hooked up with resources that are actually present in most workplaces,” Dr. Koliwad said.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is one employer working to reduce the incidence of diabetes among its workers. The agency, which has about 6,000 employees, partners with the American Diabetes Association to deliver educational seminars on diabetes to its workforce.

The agency also provides health risk and orthopedic assessments, glucose and cholesterol screenings, nutritional counseling, exercise classes and even a walking club, said Dan Roach, the San Francisco agency's manager of workers compensation, industrial safety and employee wellness.

Because employees are spread across 55 San Francisco locations, the agency's wellness program provider helps increase access to exercise facilities by driving a mobile home converted into a gym where employees exercise to each location, he said.

Since it started addressing diabetes in its wellness program, Mr. Roach said workers comp claims have been on a downward trend.

By tackling diabetes through the wellness program, “ultimately, we are going to have better employee health and, hopefully, enhance the quality of employee life, improve morale, reduce chronic health conditions and improve attendance,” Mr. Roach said. “By reducing the frequency and severity of injuries, that's a big gain for the agency as well as our employees. Lowering health care costs in the current climate is a priority for everybody.”