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DNA testing – the pros and cons

DNA testing is becoming increasingly popular as an employee benefit, with companies looking to provide a means of boosting a sense of health and wellbeing amongst their staff – and staff, it seems, enthusiastically taking them up on the opportunity.

Products on the marketplace include 23&me at £149, the SmartDNA test from Bupa at £169 that offers reports on the subject’s optimum dietary, fitness and mental wellness based on genetic-based insights as to a person’s likely sensitivity to certain foods, for example, and their disposition to certain types of injury. The idea behind this is to help the user if, for example, they then start planning to train for a marathon: they will know the right kinds of warm-ups and get an idea as to how far they can push themselves, all based on genetics. Clever or what?!

Why DNA testing?

So, why the enthusiasm? Much of the take-up of this Gattaca-style benefit seems rooted in its newness: DNA testing is distinct from medical screening and from consumer lifestyle magazines to Instagram there is a real drive to truly and deeply ‘understand’ ourselves and our health. Understanding our health is a central tenet of building our own personal wellbeing. In the minds of employees and employers, from understanding comes action. A heightened attention to our own personal wellbeing will bring a healthier you, and, more productivity. Better sleep, improved nutrition and health awareness leads to better lifestyle choices, leading to a better performance at work.

It’s worth mentioning too that cost-wise, DNA testing is pretty affordable, which is another reason for the attraction for employers.

What are the perceived benefits?

As opposed to medical screening, which gives a snapshot of a person’s health at a particular moment in time, a DNA screen is a one-off test that is then useful for a person’s whole life. When it’s done, it’s done. Medical screening may at one time have had the appeal of novelty but we are now all so used to learning about our height, weight, BMI and cholesterol readings that these things on their own don’t seem to be spurring us into improved health actions as they once might have.

Is there a darker side?

DNA testing will reveal some of your physical character traits: for example, whether you’re likely to have wavy hair, freckles, or flat feet – nice! But it will also tell you if you’re likely to be a carrier of some inherited medical conditions. These may be things that you’re not aware of – diseases for which you may be a carrier and not have any symptoms, for example: sickle cell anaemia. For these aspects of the test, there are tutorials before the results are revealed and opportunities not to have it revealed, if this is not what you want.

So, is ignorance bliss? Or is knowledge power? That is one of the fundamental questions when it comes to this sort of testing. DNA tests can reveal some unexpected and alarming results: markers for congenital diseases which you could therefore pass on/have already passed on to your children. Far from boosting an employee’s wellbeing – as is the aim – this could lead to depression and stress if not managed properly by the employer who offered the benefit in the first place.

What should employers do to counteract any negative impact?

Our advice would be to be very aware that any DNA testing you offer to staff, while they may very enthusiastically accept the opportunity to get themselves checked out, should be backed up in the workplace with opportunities for counselling and support should the results be a more mixed bag than the user may have been expecting. A line manager should have knowledge of when staff are undergoing testing and when the results are due, providing opportunities for users to be signposted to support if required.

Any other surprises?

Another thing to note … just as a postscript … is that DNA testing may also reveal some surprising, shall we say, ancestry of a person. Let’s say for example that your DNA test comes back to reveal you are in fact 40 per cent Italian, unbeknownst to you … imagine the embarrassing conversations back at home!

Data storage

Finally, a word on data storage. When investing in DNA testing, make sure you understand where the data is stored. Data regulations are different in different countries: for example, the EU and the United States. Have an understanding of where the information is going to be kept and what that country’s rules are.

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