High prevalence of non-communicable diseases risk factors in 36 074 South African financial sector employees

August 11, 2021

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High prevalence of non-communicable diseases risk factors in 36 074 South African financial sector employees

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are a major economic drain to both individuals and companies. A workforce with a high prevalence of NCDs is associated with increased absenteeism, reduced productivity or an increased risk of leaving employment early due to incapacity. Lifestyle-related risk factors for NCD’s can be identified and managed by implementing workplace health promotion programmes.

Currently, many private health insurers, including SA’s largest financial sector insurer, offer annual Health Risk Assessments (HRAs) as part of their preventative screening benefits for their employers’ groups at the worksite to characterize the health profile of its members. In many companies, the annual HRA is a starting point to introduce a comprehensive wellness program and is often the first step before implementing targeted health interventions.

As part of his PhD research Mr Nceba Hene, a student registered in the Division of Biokinetics and Sport Science, in collaboration with the Sport, Exercise Medicine and Lifestyle Institute (SEMLI) at the University of Pretoria, studied the HRAs and the clinical measurements taken at Corporate Wellness Days of 36 074 financial sector employees from 73 worksites around South Africa.  He found that 89.3% consumed less than the recommended 5 servings of fruit and vegetables daily, 77.4% participated in less than the recommended 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous intensity activity a week, and 66.8% were overweight (BMI 25 or higher).  This study highlighted that South African financial sector employees are a population at risk for developing NCDs.

Nceba Hene has been a Biokineticist for 19 years, specializing in high performance sport and corporate wellness. He operated his Biokinetics practice for a nearly a decade, during this time he was also the strength and conditioning coach for the 7s and 15s South Africa Women’s Rugby team. From 2013 – 2014, he was the fitness coach for the Senior National Netball Team. Hene also has experience in academia as he worked as a part-time lecturer at the University of the Western Cape and Tshwane University of Technology in the Sports and Exercise Science Departments. His experiences as a high-performance coach, educator and his commerce qualification (BCom) have enabled him to venture into Corporate as a wellness and rewards manager. In his various roles, he has been responsible for acquiring and managing wellness partners and driving the uptake and engagement of wellness solutions within Medical Schemes and Corporates.

Mr Hene then investigated whether or not repeating Wellness Days annually and implementing an intervention after the Wellness Days, would have an impact on their lifestyle-related risk factors. The intervention consisted of immediate verbal and written feedback from a healthcare professional about their results and guidance on how to maintain or modify their lifestyle risk behaviours.  Those identified as being at increased risk also received follow-up sms, e-mail, and telephonic contact in the weeks after the Wellness Day.  Surprisingly, results showed that Wellness Days with interventions repeated annually were associated with an increase in overall risk, and poorer outcomes for inadequate fruit and vegetable intake and overweight risk factors.  There was no change in the prevalence of smoking, hypertension, insufficient physical activity and diabetes mellitus; and the only prevalence that improved was hypercholesterolaemia. The researchers surmise that to improve outcomes, alternative assessment and intervention strategies should be considered. The use of wearable technologies, financial incentives or social media platforms could be explored to reach and engage at-risk employees, on an ongoing basis to modify their lifestyle behaviours. These recommendations may result in comprehensive, multifaceted, and integrated intervention programmes which could prevent and manage NCDs and their risk factors amongst financial sector employees.

Hene’s background in Biokinetics and experience in corporate has led him to observing the prevalence of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in the workplace. Thus, his PhD thesis investigates the effectiveness of a scientifically based lifestyle intervention to prevent and control NCDs using social media. In his thesis, he argues that a collaborative effort between health professionals such as dieticians and biokineticists may be needed to support people and to provide reliable content on social media to change lifestyle behaviors.

References related to this article:

“High Prevalence of Non-Communicable Diseases Risk Factors in 36,074 South African Financial Sector Employees: A Cross-Sectional Study.” Nceba Hene, Paola Wood, Martin Schwellnus, Esme Jordaan, Ria Laubscher. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine: February 2021 – Volume 63 – Issue 2 – p 159-165


“Repeated annual health risk assessments with intervention did not reduce 10-year cardiovascular disease risk: A 4-year longitudinal study in 13737 financial sector employees”. Nceba Hene, Paola Wood, Martin Schwellnus, Esme Jordaan, Ria Laubscher. Accepted for publication in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine