Stress and inactivity may seem like everyday occurrences, but they can also be insidious health risks.
One-quarter (24 per cent) of employers reported workplace stress and sedentary lifestyles as the top health risks for employees, according to the 2013 Sun Life-Buffett National Wellness Survey of 400 employers.
While stress is an issue that’s consistently cited, sedentary lifestyles are also a major concern in the 2013 survey.
"Stress has shown up overwhelmingly as number one for many years and it does continue to be a concern… (but) sedentary lifestyle has also moved up and is lining up with stress as a major area of concern," said Lori Casselman, assistant vice-president of health and wellness, group benefits at Sun Life Financial in Toronto.
Sedentary lifestyle not a new problem
While sedentary lifestyle is now the number one employer concern, according to the survey, it’s certainly not a new problem, said Lydia Makrides, president of Creative Wellness Solutions in Halifax.
"Sedentary lifestyle has been an issue forever — it’s not getting worse, it’s been like this for a long time," she said. "We are not getting more sedentary — we’ve hit the bottom of the barrel. The reason employers are noticing it now is that they’re noticing their costs."
And those costs can really start to pile up.
"A lot of employees have a lot of back issues, neck issues, shoulder issues, and these are costing huge amounts… we have companies that spend over $3 million on musculoskeletal connective tissue (problems), which they tell us is over a third of their medical costs," said Makrides.
Employers need to start quantifying sedentary lifestyle through proper assessments instead of just handing out gym memberships, she said.
"It’s not about putting a wellness program (in place)," said Makrides. "In order for any wellness program to work, it has to be part of a corporate wellness strategy. And this corporate wellness strategy has to be as important as sales, marketing, product development… it should not be an add-on tacked on to an HR program."
Ninety-two per cent of employers recognized the health of employees has a direct impact on the organization’s performance, found the survey. Employers that offer wellness programs reported higher employee morale and a 40 per cent drop in absenteeism.
"We’ve known for years, and we’ve certainly seen great data for years, that morale can be positively impacted by the implementation of wellness programs," said Casselman. "The great news story here is that employers themselves are now identifying that they’re seeing those results."
Stress, mental illness affect entire workplace
Addressing mental wellness is critically important because mental health issues affect the entire workplace — not just the individual who is suffering, according to Sapna Mahajan, director of prevention and promotion initiatives at the Mental Health Commission of Canada in Calgary.
"You’ve probably heard of absenteeism, where people are gone out of the workplace," she said. "But the new term that’s been used a lot is presenteeism, where people are actually present at work, physically, but because of stress... are burnt out, and they’re actually not productive."
And the impact of stress and mental illness in the workplace is not limited to decreased productivity.
"Thirty per cent of disability claims are attributed to mental illness, but 70 per cent of disability costs are attributed to mental illness," said Mahajan.
Putting it into practice
So, how can employers improve the focus on wellness in the workplace?
Workplace wellness, particularly in regards to mental wellness, requires "energy management," according to Mary Ann Baynton, program director at the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace in Toronto.
"We’ve just started talking about the fact that it’s really not about time management — we have to start to talk about energy management," she said.
"If you really want to talk about productivity and performance, it’s (about) how can people manage their energy? When we’re stressed out in a negative way, it reduces our productivity. But some stress, because we’re motivated, we’re engaged, we’re excited, we’re enthusiastic about the work, actually improves our performance."
Measurement tools such as risk assessments are critical in finding out where resources should be allocated, said Marion Reeves, owner and principal of Life Fit Associates in Waterdown, Ont.
As a starting point, a health-risk assessment is a valuable tool for employers to become more aware of where the issues are, she said.
"They would be able to draw on that to find out where they could target some intervention."
That enables employers to create a targeted strategy that addresses the most critical concerns at their organization — such as stress or mental illness.
"There is so much evidence that the cost benefits of putting a mental health program in place is going to pay off," said Reeves.
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