Research indicates that more than half of the Canadian workforce lives with at least one chronic medical condition.1 These long-term conditions include physical illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes and psychological issues like depression. All have significant impact on workplace productivity and health plan costs. The Public Health Agency of Canada estimates that chronic disease costs our economy $122 billion each year in lost productivity.2
Compounding the problem is the disconnect between the number of employees suffering from chronic disease and employers’ lack of awareness of how prevalent it really is. The 2016 Sanofi Canada Healthcare Survey found that 59% of employees live with at least one chronic condition. When employers were asked how many people within their workplaces deal with chronic conditions, they estimated only 32% of employees were affected.3
It’s clear that chronic disease is more common than many believe, and these figures speak to the need for employers to focus on prevention and support when it comes to chronic disease in the workplace. So, what are some things that we can incorporate into our wellness programs to help reduce the impact of chronic disease?
- Implement a Health Risk Assessment.
These assessments look at various components of health (physical, mental, financial, etc.) and provide companies with important baseline data on the health of their workforce. This information can help direct your Wellness Program and the kinds of initiatives it should include to be most relevant and valuable to your team. Health Risk Assessment tools also provide employees with personalized reports, so they gain a better understanding of the state of their health and what changes they should be making to improve their well-being.
- Facilitate biometric screenings.
Health screenings are assessments of key health measures that identify conditions or indicate a risk for conditions. The value of screenings comes in the information and insight the results provide. The more an employee knows about his or her health, the better the opportunity to make positive lifestyle changes that can have a lifelong impact.
- Examine policies and corporate practices.
At the organizational level, you can look at how well policies and processes are aligned with best practices that support a culture of health. Using this information, you can better strategize and create a wellness program that meets your company objectives and provides the intended benefits to your employees.
- Share regular prevention messaging to remind employees to make healthy choices.
Incorporate simple tips for a healthy lifestyle: Adults should include 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise each week… or… Eat at least one dark green and one orange vegetable every day. Post messages on communication boards or in the lunchroom, set them as screen savers, or add them to the top of meeting agendas. You may even consider using a group text app to send messages to your employees. (A study conducted with individuals living with chronic illnesses found evidence that text messages encouraged them to make needed changes and improve their health.4) The idea is to nudge employees toward healthier behaviours.
- Educate employees on how to prevent chronic disease by leading a healthy lifestyle.
According to research, there are 5 key health-related behaviours that help prevent chronic disease5: living smoke-free, exercising regularly, limiting alcohol, eating well / maintaining a healthy weight, and getting enough sleep. Managing stress can also be added to that list.6 Base program initiatives around these behaviours and offering resources and activities that help employees put them into practice, is important. Invite health speakers in for workshops and lunch-and-learns, organize health fairs, include information in monthly newsletters. If appropriate, focus these activities on areas most relevant to your employees (e.g. heart health) based on assessment and screening results. These program components can also benefit employees already dealing with chronic conditions and can help them implement changes to improve their situation.
- Motivate employees to make healthy choices with fun and engaging activities.
Change is hard – especially if you’re trying to swap out your morning caramel latte for a green smoothie. Changing your lifestyle from a health perspective is one of the hardest changes someone can make. Encourage employees to give healthy choices a try by having fun with it. Infuse personality into your wellness program. Create opportunities for people to interact and form social connections. Use holidays and fun themes to promote healthy behaviours. Friendly competition in the form of challenges can be great motivation. Consider challenging employees to complete x minutes of exercise each day or eat the recommended servings of fruits and veggies.
- Create a supportive environment.
When employees feel supported, they will be more likely to consider engaging in what you are offering through your wellness program. Employees need assurances of confidentiality and no fear of repercussions if they participate in health assessments, book a session with a health coach, or inform their manager about a chronic condition they are living with. Ensure that managers are trained to be supportive and react appropriately when employees share concerns and enable them to find ways to keep talented employees at work.
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1 Improving Health Outcomes—A Paradigm Shift: Centre for Chronic Disease Prevention Strategic Plan 2016–2019. https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/chronic-diseases/centre-chronic-disease-prevention-strategic-plan-2016-2019-improving-health-outcomes-a-paradigm-shift.html#a2.1
2 Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance of Canada. 2018 pre-budget submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance. August 4, 2017. https://www.ourcommons.ca/Content/Committee/421/FINA/Brief/BR9073636/br-external/ChronicDiseasePreventionAllianceOfCanada-e.pdf
3 The Sanofi Canada Healthcare Survey 2016 Edition. https://www.sanofi.ca/-/media/Project/One-Sanofi-Web/Websites/North-America/Sanofi-CA/Home/en/About-us/The-Sanofi-Canada-Healthcare-Survey/The-Sanofi-Canada-Healthcare-Survey-2016—Full-Report.pdf
4 C. Chow, J. Redfern, G.S. Hillis, et al. JAMA. 2015;314(12):1255-1263. doi:10.1001/jama.2015.10945. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2442937
5 Liu Y, Croft JB, Wheaton AG, Kanny D, Cunningham TJ, Lu H, et al. Clustering of Five Health-Related Behaviors for Chronic Disease Prevention Among Adults, United States, 2013. Prev Chronic Dis 2016;13:160054. https://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2016/16_0054.htm
6 Kandola, A. What are the health effects of chronic stress? Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/323324.php