While it’s not unusual for dental problems to play second fiddle to other medical ailments, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that oral health is directly linked to other aspects of our wellbeing. So if you want to maintain a healthy, happy workforce, it’s important for your employees to look after their teeth.
To be fair, dental hygiene has come a long way in recent years. More than half of UK adults visit a dentist at least twice a year and only 6% have no natural teeth (compared to 37% in 1978). But with 66% of adults showing visible signs of plaque, 29% suffering from regular dental pain and 31% having tooth decay, there’s still a long way to go1.
Part of the problem is that too many dental complaints are seen as trivial. An employee might put up with a bit of toothache rather than disrupt their busy diary. And they’re certainly more likely to get sympathy for a sore foot than sore gums. But in reality, there’s nothing to suggest that one condition is any less serious than the other. And just because oral health is looked after by dentists rather than doctors, doesn’t mean that the mouth should be treated as an isolated organ. It affects all aspects of the body… and vice versa.
Dealing with dental decay
Anyone who has experienced tooth decay knows how unpleasant it can be. Aside from the sleepless nights and nagging pain, it looks unsightly, causes bad breath and can even lead to psychological problems. And yet, by introducing a few good habits, it can easily be avoided.
Simple things like brushing twice a day, flossing regularly and taking frequent trips to the dentist can all help. Or if you want to support your employees at work, remind them to eat sensibly and restrict their sugar and starch intake to mealtimes.
Taking frequent sips of cool non-sugary drinks or chew sugar-free gum helps to improve saliva levels, which is the mouth’s primary defence against tooth decay. It is also particularly useful for employees who are taking regular medication, because one of the most common side-effects of prescription drugs is a dry mouth.
Getting to grips with gum disease (gingivitis)
Gum disease (gingivitis) is caused by an infection of the tissues that support the teeth – often as a result of plaque build-up. It’s easy to identify by the colour of the gums. A healthy mouth has pink gums, while an unhealthy mouth is more likely to be red and inflamed.
Besides causing problems for your teeth, gum disease is known to increase the risk of strokes, diabetes and heart disease2 - three of the most claimed for critical illnesses. So it shouldn’t be taken lightly. Obviously, there’s no need to worry your employees unduly, but there’s no harm in letting them know the risks – especially if it prompts them to take action.
When gum disease remains untreated, it can develop into a more serious condition called periodontitis. This affects the tissues that support the teeth and hold them in place, which can ultimately end up damaging the jaw. It’s much more complex than gingivitis because it is affected by a number of factors.
For a start, it can be caused by a long list of health conditions, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment, kidney disease, osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis. It is also known to have strong links to genetics, which, of course, you can’t do much about. But the one area where you can help your employees is in regard to the many behavioural factors that make periodontitis more likely – such as stress, poor diet, obesity and smoking.
Stress is a common workplace problem that can be managed in a number of ways, from mindfulness programmes to regular breaks and emotional support. Healthy eating habits can be improved by raising awareness and simple gestures like leaving a bowl of fruit available for employees to tuck into. And you don’t have to send your team down to the gym to tackle obesity. Start by encouraging them to take lunchtime breaks and maybe even try stand-up meetings.
Last, but not least, smoking is perhaps the biggest behavioural cause of periodontal disease. So if there’s anything you can do to help your employees give up, you should give it a go – whether it’s paying for their Nicorette patches, incentivising them financially, or just giving them time off work – a smoke-free workplace is good for the gums, teeth, heart, lungs, mouth… and much more besides!
Like all medical matters, the key to improving your team’s dental health starts with awareness. So even if you have got time to make too many changes throughout your workplace, a few timely tips can make a big difference and especially making it easier for them to go and see a dentist. And what better place to start than letting them know that their smiles matter!
Disclaimer: This article has been written in collaboration with Bupa, one of Elect’s insurance providers. It is for information only and is not specific advice. It is based on our current understanding of the attributed research which may change in the future.