Canada trails U.S. in wellness

By David Brown
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/12/2001

If an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, how come a milligram of prevention isn’t worth a kilogram of cure?

Corporate Canada continues to endure unnecessary health-care costs and setbacks to productivity due to a reluctance to embrace preventive health care in the form of wellness programs the way businesses south of the border have.

While it has been widely reported and increasingly accepted that a healthy workforce is a more productive workforce, according to research on the state of wellness in corporate Canada, just 17 per cent of Canadian companies have implemented comprehensive wellness programs, compared to 37 per cent in the United States. Perhaps more telling, 57 of the Fortune 100 companies have committed themselves to wellness with comprehensive programs.

“When we compare ourselves to the U.S. we have some catching up to do,” says Ed Buffett of Buffett Taylor and Associates, a workplace wellness consultant firm that conducted a comprehensive survey of Canadian Wellness in 1996 and will shortly release an updated survey this year. “We don’t pay a great deal of attention to the preventive side of the (health-care) equation.”

In the 1990s, most companies looked to cut the costs of benefit programs, in particular, the administrative costs, but that typically only represents about 10 cents of every dollar spent while 90 cents was spent on the actual cost of the claim. Savings from administration can only go so far, says Buffett. A new way of looking at things, and this is where wellness comes in, is to look at cutting costs by avoiding the claims in the first place.

Although he is a supporter of the Canadian system of universal health care, Buffett admits free medical attention for all Canadians has slowed the acceptance of preventive health care. Universal health care caused the misplaced perception that everything is for free and so very few firms have taken the time to consider the costs of employee benefits, he says.

In the United States, health care is individual and employer funded, so there is a greater emphasis on containing costs through preventive measures like improving quality of life, he says.

It is believed as much as 55 per cent of health-care costs are preventable through lifestyle changes: quitting smoking, being more active and improving eating habits, for example. “Employers have ignored these things and the same holds true for heart disease,” which is also often preventable, he says. “People do inherit certain genes, but there is no question that behaviour is a major contributor (to heart disease).”

Conference Board of Canada research has shown that an employee who smokes costs employers, on average, an additional $2,200 a year in absenteeism, prescription drugs, productivity and other health-care costs than a non-smoker.

The notion and practice of wellness is starting to gain some energy in Canada, but it needs help from the government to sustain what momentum is being built up. Buffett will be speaking before the Senate Standing Committee on Science, Health and Technology, this month.

He hopes to convince parliamentarians of the need for a national campaign to put wellness front and centre for Canadian businesses. It would not require a lot of money — just becoming a vocal supporter of a national program would go a long way to helping the cause, he says.

Wellness has not been part of the national agenda in Canada for some time, while the reverse has been true in the U.S.

The Participaction program made a major splash in educating Canadians about the benefits of adopting a more healthy lifestyle, but funding for that program disappeared as soon as the economy went into a downturn.

On the other hand, in the U.S., Healthy People 2000 was launched in the early 1990s to promote health, prevent illness, disability and premature death, and has played an important role in raising awareness about wellness in the U.S. It has been followed by Healthy People 2010, picking up where the previous programs left off.

Buffet, who is chair of the Wellness Council of Canada, recently co-authored a book on wellness promotion in the workplace. A detailed look at creating healthy workplaces, Health Promotion, a sourcebook for Canadian businesses, offers counsel on implementing wellness programs, including how to make the case to the senior team, the steps to success, how to maximize participation as well as profiles of successful wellness programs.

There is not a lot of data on the benefits and cost comparisons, but more evidence is beginning to emerge that shows comprehensive programs will reduce absenteeism, improve productivity and therefore the bottom line.

Many wellness programs, however well-intentioned, will do little to affect lasting and substantive change in the individual and therefore do little to improve organizational performance, says Buffett.

The typical lunch-and-learns or one-off presentations may put it on the front burner for a while, but the advice is soon forgotten and rarely acted upon.

Comprehensive wellness programs require hours of instruction spread out over weeks and months with involvement with health-care professionals who conduct followups to monitor progress.

Buffett admits the immediate cost of comprehensive wellness programs is greater, but organizations need to look beyond short-term costs to the benefits that will accrue to the organization three to five years down the road.

Aside from a growing body of evidence that wellness reduces absenteeism, Buffett points out there is also a link between a healthy workforce and customer satisfaction, since healthy employees are happier employees and therefore better at meeting customer needs.

The Wellness Council of Canada, WELCAN is a forum for the exchange of workplace wellness ideas and serves as a resource for organizations looking for information on wellness. They produce a monthly newsletter for distribution to employees to promote workplace wellness. Health Promotion, a sourcebook for Canadian businesses, costs $79 with all of the profits going to WELCAN.

For information call 1-800-263-2670 ext. 231 or e-mail, stef@buffetttaylor.com.

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