Working with Workplaces for Heart Health

The Heart Foundation

“It’s important for workplaces to have a comprehensive approach to their program and activities that they might have in terms of being able to support heart health within the workplace,” states Dr Lyn Roberts, National CEO of the Heart Foundation.

“There are a lot of people now that actually have heart disease or other chronic diseases that are in the workplace, so it is very important that the workplaces have identified ways of being able to support people.” This, she explains, can include a variety of measures, from ensuring that healthy food is available in the canteen to simple things like creating opportunities for people who choose the heart healthy option of riding their bikes to work to have lockers and shower facilities available. “There are some quite simple things that we can do,” she says.

Not only do these measures impact the lives of those individuals, but indeed they positively affect the workplace as a whole. “Absolutely,” agrees Dr Roberts. “I think more and more, people understand that there is really a partnership between people in workplaces and employers.

“This isn’t always focussed on physical activity and nutrition issues; we also know that if you look at issues like depression and heart disease that there is a link between the two. We know that lack of social support and social isolation also seem to be risk factors towards heart disease as well, so obviously if there is a great environment or wellness program at a workplace there are mental health benefits as well as physical health benefits that come with that.

“Heart Week is always such an important time for us and it’s also a program that we’ve run for a very long time. We’re very proud of the level of community engagement that we have.” With a broad array of activities planned throughout the week, the program this year will be on spreading awareness of the warning signs of a heart attack.

Says Dr Roberts, “[This] fits with the work that we’ve been doing and we’ve been running a campaign in this particular area now for quite a significant time. It’s really about trying to help people to understand what the warning signs of a heart attack are, but most importantly that if they think they are experiencing those warning signs or they are with somebody in a workplace or with a family member who they think might be having a heart attack, that they call 000 and get an ambulance as soon as possible because treatment can actually start in the ambulance. There is a misconception that an ambulance is just simply a form of transport to get to hospital and that of course is not the case, so it’s a really important message for us to get across.”

In order to push these messages forth into the community, the Heart Foundation undertakes a comprehensive assortment of community engagement practices, liaising with a wide selection of community groups, hospitals, community health care centres, and doctor’s offices each year. Leading up to this year’s Heart Week, the Foundation has distributed close to ten thousand kits that have gone out to community groups including workplaces across Australia. The kit includes a poster and information materials which the groups can utilise within their workplace or community setting, enabling them to get involved in Heart Week.

“It’s just fabulous that people get engaged and involved in that way because it helps us to spread the message further,” enthuses Dr Roberts. “The Heart Foundation has been around for over fifty years and we are dedicated to saving lives and to really making a difference to the heart health of all Australians. We really do try and work quite broadly in terms of funding research; we develop clinical guidelines which professionals can use in supporting patient care.”

As a charity, the preponderance of the Heart Foundation’s funding comes from community support. To improve the influence of this funding, the Foundation endeavours to work with a large variety of community groups. “In more recent years we’ve been really looking to work with business and corporate partners as well; if we can work with a corporation as we’ve just been discussing around workplace health, and if they are picking up the Heart Foundation’s message and providing that and spreading that through their workplaces then that is a fantastic opportunity for us.”

One important initiative orchestrated by the Heart Foundation is its ‘Tick’ program, whereby companies within the food and beverages industries can partner with the organisation in providing easily recognised heart healthier options to consumers. “We are very proud of the work that we’ve done with the Heart Foundation Tick here in Australia,” says Dr Roberts. “It’s a program that has been established now for well over twenty years. We set up the program so that we could set a challenge to food manufacturers and food companies to actually reformulate the foods that they were producing so that they were a healthier product.”

Over time, the Heart Foundation has indeed worked with a wide selection of health conscious companies to create products which meet these high health standards. “When you get that Heart Foundation ‘Tick’ on a product it’s actually met a number of different criteria. If the company is going to join the program, they have to test their products against our criteria. If they don’t meet our criteria then they have to go away and reformulate their product if they want to be a part of the program, so often there is a lot of work done by companies.

“We’ve looked at encouraging companies to reduce the amount of saturated fats that might be in food products and to actually eliminate the trans fats in food products. And to not only focus on just the negative nutrients like with saturated fats and trans fats, but to look at putting positive nutrients into their products as well, so looking at making sure there is fibre and looking at the energy density of products.”

This work often requires a significant time investment on the part of companies, sometimes spanning a twelve month or even two year period. “They then go back to their manufacturing process and really look at how they can get sodium levels down in bread or how they can actually reduce the salt levels in baked beans or whatever that product might be so that they can still have a stable product that is also a healthier product going out for consumers to be able to purchase with confidence.”

Additionally, the National Health and Medical Research Council has recently produced new Dietary Guidelines. “From the Heart Foundation’s perspective,” comments Dr Roberts, “we were very pleased with the dietary guidelines changes. It’s a very complex process to produce them and there has been a lot of consultation over a long time in terms of updating these Guidelines. For us, one of the most significant things that the Guidelines did was move away from a concentration on total fat in the diet to actually look at the quality or type of fat as being important.”

The new guidelines highlight the difference between foods that might be high in saturated fats and trans fats, encouraging consumers to reduce consumption of those foods. At the same time, consumers are urged to understand that there are some fats and oils that are healthy fats, including those found in oily fish or the oils that might come from polyunsaturated or monounsaturated oils. These types of fat are actually a very important, healthy aspect of an individual’s diet. That’s been quite a significant change for us here in Australia to have that focus on what I would call the quality of fat.”

Further to this, the Heart Foundation has introduced a new five year plan which Dr Roberts says the organisation is quite excited about named ‘For All Hearts.’ “One of the key goals that we’re going to be working on is really being able to promote heart care to the community to help people understand a little more about what heart disease means and what the risk factors are.”

At the same time, the organisation has begun to broaden its reach to some of the more disadvantaged groups within Australia, who report a higher risk of heart disease. Explains Dr Roberts, “We also want to focus particularly from a heart equity position because the burden of cardiovascular disease on Australia has really moved away from being predominantly in high socio-economic groups in to more disadvantaged groups. It is very important that the Heart Foundation reflects that through the work that we do and the communities that we engage with. So that’s going to be a bit of a change in focus for us over the next five years.

“One of the key areas where we have done quite a lot of work in Australia has been with our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders communities because we know that they have really shocking rates of heart disease. They tend to die much younger than the average Australian from heart disease. We also know that when they actually get to hospitals there is a gap or a disadvantage there in terms of perhaps the number of tests they get, the surgeries that they get, whether they get access to cardiac rehab, so we’ve been working in that area over the last few years to specifically understand what are those barriers and challenges of being able to coordinate care to our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. We think that a lot of that knowledge will also be of great use to us as we look more broadly at disadvantaged groups and how we can work productively with them in Australia.”

The Heart Foundation has also been moving forward from a communications perspective. “There are just so many wonderful options and opportunities now that social media has given us,” says Dr Roberts, “We will be able to engage with different groups and different communities by actually using social marketing campaigns either via television or radio or by using different ways of connecting with people (like Twitter or Facebook), through to looking at social media and digital opportunities for us to build and support networks in terms of being able to provide household information.

“I think it’s about really being able to take a lot of the core work that we’ve done in the past… to use those opportunities that are now available to us to be able to tailor that to fit communities at need. And I think that’s a very exciting thing for us to be able to do.”

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March 26, 2017, 8:37 AM AEDT

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