Canadian companies upping their investment in worker health: Survey

Three-quarters (76 per cent) of Canadian organizations are planning to increase their support for workforce health programs over the next two years, found a survey by Towers Watson.
This commitment, similar to other countries in the survey, is seen as a way to keep workers healthier and improve workplace productivity.

"The survey indicates that over the next few years we will continue to see organizations commit both financial and human resources to transform their current programs from a patchwork of wellness tactics into a more cohesive, integrated strategy," said Wendy Poirier, Towers Watson's Canadian health and group benefits leader. "A focus on expanding and developing a culture of health in the workplace will be critical to optimizing the return on investment."

Canadian employers continue to offer basic health awareness and prevention services:
• health-risk assessments (45 per cent)
• biometric screenings (40 per cent)
• vaccination programs (80 per cent)
• web-based health information tools (65 per cent).

Some employers have started to expand from these traditional services to implement newer approaches:
• on-site health services, such as a physician or dietitian (11 per cent)
• behavioural health services through virtual sessions (20 per cent)
• mobile applications (18 per cent).

In addition to adding newer health services, the survey also shows that Canadian employers are turning to specialty vendors to deliver services traditionally provided by health insurers or in-house teams. Forty-six per cent of survey respondents reported the use of specialty vendors for health-risk assessments, 63 per cent for biometric screenings and 28 per cent for disability management.

Low employee participation still a concern
?Despite expanding the array of wellness activities offered, employers have seen relatively small upticks in participation rates for most activities.  According to the survey, about one in four employees is participating in health-risk assessments and biometric screenings — just marginally higher than the participation rates reported in the 2011-12 survey.

The top two barriers to employee participation, according to survey respondents, are lack of employee engagement in their own health and well-being and lack of adequate budget or staff to support effective programs.

"If employee engagement in healthy activities is the key objective, most Canadian companies have not yet achieved that goal," said Keri Alletson, a senior health and group benefits consultant and a member of the global research team at Towers Watson.  "If employers want to increase participation — or, even better, realize an improvement in both physical and mental health — more work is required to understand, measure and target the root causes of low participation rates."

The root causes of low participation rates may be directly linked to the top three health risks cited by respondents — stress (83 per cent), lack of physical activity (49 per cent), and obesity (41 per cent). 

"Employees juggling heavy workloads and complex lives may simply not have the energy or the drive to fully understand and engage in workplace health and wellness activities," said Alletson. "It appears that companies that enable their staff to work more manageable hours and address inadequate staffing, unclear job expectations and other aspects of the workplace, may actually see better outcomes, both in terms of individual health and company productivity."

Role of workplace culture ?
The study analyzes the gaps between "high-effectiveness" and "low-effectiveness" companies to understand differences in approach and highlight differences in results. The ongoing research suggests that high-effectiveness organizations take a broader view of health and productivity, focus on different metrics and build strategies to develop and sustain a workplace culture that supports workforce health.

"Employers recognize that good health is an important business issue and that poor health clearly affects workforce performance and drives up benefit costs," Poirier said. "A formal strategy that includes health, well-being and worker effectiveness as core employment values is critical to getting the most out of a benefits program and, more important, to driving sustained healthy behaviours."

According to the survey, Canadian companies have some work to do. While 43 per cent of Canadian respondents are focused on workplace culture where employees are responsible for their health and understand its importance, only 10 per cent report having a formal health strategy and just 13 per cent report having effectively communicated that strategy. 

It does appear, however, that change is on the horizon, said Towers Watson. Eighteen per cent of respondents are planning to implement formal plans with defined goals, and an additional 25 per cent are planning to communicate and deliver the value behind the strategy over the next three years.

The 2013/2014 Towers Watson Staying@Work was completed by a total of 892 employers, including 114 in Canada.