Employees keen on disease prevention

Health-risk screenings popular: Survey
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/09/2013

More than two-thirds (69 per cent) of employees think their employers should do more to help prevent disease, illness and injury, according to the 2013 Sanofi Canada Healthcare Survey.

“We spend a considerable amount of our day… on-site in our workplace, and we all want to feel well, feel better and I think we’re looking for our employers to really help try to support and keep us healthy,” said Theresa Rose, director of group product management at Medavie Blue Cross in Moncton, N.B.

“That’s a big change from about five, 10, 15 years ago when most employees preferred their personal health issues and treatment remained private.”

Employees are not alone on this front — 91 per cent of the 106 employers surveyed agreed they should do more in the area of prevention.

“It’s the perfect opportunity — readiness is there, employer appetite is there and employee receptiveness is now lining up,” said Marilee Mark, vice-president of marketing for group benefits at Manulife Financial in Toronto.

With more and more employees suffering from chronic diseases, prevention should be top of mind for employers. Fifty-eight per cent of Canadian adults have one or more of the following chronic conditions: arthritis, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, high blood pressure and mental illness, said the report.

And the prevalence of employees with a chronic condition increases with age. Two-thirds (69 per cent) of people aged 55 to 64 have a chronic condition, compared to 36 per cent of 18- to 34-year-olds, found the survey of 1,502 employees.

“(Chronic diseases) are an issue if they aren’t being managed,” said Sarah Beech, president of Pal Benefits in Toronto. “Individuals may not be able to actively be at work, so then you have absenteeism, either on a short-term or long-term basis, and you have people who come to work not fully functioning, so there’s the whole presenteeism concern.”

Almost two-thirds (64 per cent) of employers are offering at least one wellness program or service, up from 47 per cent in 2012, found the survey.

Immunization clinics are the most popular, with 45 per cent of employees saying their employers offer this service. And the utilization rate is on par, with 47 per cent of employees saying they use these clinics.

“They are becoming more and more common because of the ease of access of a flu clinic… and the readiness to go that’s often there,” said Mark.

Other commonly offered programs include subsidized gym memberships (31 per cent), health and wellness information or education (28 per cent), personalized health counselling or coaching (25 per cent) and fitness or weight loss programs (24 per cent), according to the employees surveyed.

Health-risk screenings

Health-risk screenings are a particularly strong area of interest for employees, found the report. Almost nine in 10 (88 per cent) said they would like to participate in an on-site screening for a condition that’s of personal concern, such as cancer or diabetes.

Less than one-fifth (17 per cent) of employees said their company offers screenings. But nearly one-half (49 per cent) of employers said they need to offer this service going forward.

“You can have a chronic condition that’s not necessarily visible,” said Mark. “You can have high blood pressure or diabetes… it’s almost like the silent majority out there and you don’t even know the number of people that you have that are already at risk.”

Understanding the health profile of the organization is one of the most important factors for prevention, said Rose.

“You can’t paint every workforce with the same brush,” she said. “Employers really need to understand what are the health issues within their own organizations.”

When employees have more awareness of their health, they have a better awareness of what benefits are available to them — which boosts employee engagement, said Mark.

“We’re trying to get employees to think more like informed consumers. An informed consumer uses something consciously and they want to get the value out of that and they recognize what value the employer is giving them,” she said. “They may be more conscious and aware of how they’re using their benefit plans, and that’s a good outcome.”


Better data on absenteeism is essential, with just 52 per cent of employers formally tracking their absenteeism, said the Sanofi report.

Employers said 19 per cent of their employees had taken a large number of sick days without going on disability; 10 per cent had been on short-term disability; and four per cent had been on long-term disability.

“Absenteeism is a big one; it’s a symptom. It’s one thing to know people aren’t at work but it’s really another… to understand why people aren’t at work because there’s usually something bigger at play,” said Rose.

“Oftentimes, we refer to absenteeism as the tip of the iceberg because there is always something that lies beneath.”

Once employers start tracking absenteeism, they can correlate it to the top drugs being used and employee assistance program (EAP) data to see the trends that are happening at their organization, said Beech.

Public-private co-ordination

Workers look to employers for help in “navigating the bureaucratic maze” between the private and public health-care systems, found the survey. Thirty-eight per cent of employees expect their employers and health benefits providers to help them co-ordinate coverage between the two systems.

Nearly six in 10 (59 per cent) employers said they assist employees and their families with co-ordination between the public system and their private plan.

Many employees are unaware of the resources available in their communities, so employers should partner with public agencies to provide a broader awareness, said Mark.

EAP and insurance providers often offer a wide range of links to useful resources on their websites that may be unknown to employees, said Beech.

“I don’t think employees are looking for their employer to advocate for them, for example if they’re diagnosed with cancer, but if employers can help them find resources on where they should go, that would ease their mind.”

Helping employees navigate the types of assistance available will be a critical evolution in employee benefit plans, said Rose, adding workers want to see a co-ordinated focus on prevention that’s at the same level as treatment co-ordination.

“The people that have struggled, or all of us that know people with cancer or diabetes, it’s really hard to navigate and when you put that network together… because the workplace is such a captive audience, there’s a great opportunity for employers to try to improve the health outcomes for employees.”

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