The monthly round-up of the news and trends in the wellbeing sector
PAIN BRAIN SCANS FAIL COMPLEXITY TEST The news that scientists can now use brain scans to measure pain is raising questions about the future of insurance claims assessment.
Researchers at the Oxford Centre for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain are using scans to compare the brains of people in pain and those who are not and have identified clear physiological differences.
Dr Irene Tracey presented the centre’s findings at the Cheltenham Science Festival in June, prompting speculation about the potential to create an objective measure of pain. Such a measure could prove valuable in several fields where the subjectivity of pain currently poses challenges, including the assessment of income protection claims where musculoskeletal pain is the cause of a high proportion of claims.
However, Professor Michael O’Donnell, chief medical officer at disability insurer Unum, cautioned against drawing any firm conclusions about the potential of the technology.
“The effect pain has on you is not just something as measurable as brain activity, it depends on what you believe about the pain, whether you think activity is going to make it worse and whether you should work through it,” he said, “I don’t see it as being particularly helpful either way. If someone came along you would needs lots more information.”
He stressed: “It is really, really complex. If you believe that your pain has a serious case it’s likely to seem more severe and if you are depressed or anxious pain is going to be magnified.”
Pain has been singled out as a public health priority by England’s chief medical officer Liam Donaldson who called for a national network of rapid-access pain clinics in his latest annual report.
Every year over five million people in the UK develop chronic pain, but only two-thirds will recover and almost half have depression. It has been estimated that back pain alone costs the economy £12.3bn every year and, overall, 25% of people with chronic pain eventually lose their jobs.
INSURERS TALK THE TALK… BUT DO THEY
WALK THE WALK?
Insurers spend a lot of time discussing the importance of workplace health – so we thought we’d put their claims to the test each month! Do their workforces practise what they preach?
For every sensible stress initiative from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) there is a slightly outlandish press release claiming that the nation is turning to surprising sources of relief from the pressures of 21st century working life. The latest was stress-busting curry. So it is good to see insurer Groupama Healthcare offering staff the opportunity to address stress sensibly rather than force feeding them biryani in the canteen.
As part of a new initiative called “Finding the Balance” employees are asked to complete a stress tolerance questionnaire covering aspects of life ranging from healthy relationships to time management. The detailed analysis generated by their answers can be used to create a personal plan designed to address their particular bugbear and is also used by Groupama to spot employees in need of some extra support.
Given the HSE’s alarming stress stats – 13% of workers think their job is “very” or “extremely” stressful – and the news that most employers vastly underestimate the prevalence of mental ill-health in their workforce – the initiative is an important one.
Participants are also automatically in the running for a luxury spa break, which, nation’s favourite food aside, we reckon most people would rate slightly higher than a korma.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
Research suggests that employers vastly underestimate the prevalence of mental ill-health. EUGENE FARRELL, business manager at employee support provider AXA ICAS discusses the help available for line managers
Mental ill health is an issue for all employers of all sizes because no one is immune from psychological problems.
The Office for National Statistics says that about one in six people have a neurotic disorder, anxiety, depression or phobia.
Nevertheless, mental health charity Mind reckons “people with mental distress are still confronted with a barrage of fear and misunderstanding” and notes that this stigma “prevents people being treated fairly in the workplace and deters them from seeking help when they are in need”.
At a grassroots level line managers need to understand mental health issues, and how to manage people suffering from them.
Many organisations offer employees access to health information and professional advice lines through their medical insurance or employee assistance programmes (EAPs). The latter provide employees with confidential access to mental health experts who can provide psychological support directly or onward referral to more specialist help, such as psychiatric care, when necessary.
EAPs also provide invaluable support to managers with practical advice on dealing with people with these problems and, if used wisely and proactively, should go a long way toward preventing people with potentially serious problems from slipping through the net.