How employers can do better when it comes to chronic disease

'It's important for employers to think about preventative care programs, because it helps improve engagement'

How employers can do better when it comes to chronic disease

Almost half of Canadians live with at least one major chronic disease, with the prevalence and number of chronic conditions increasing with age, GreenShield notes, citing a data from Statistics Canada (StatCan).

The good news is 80 per cent of these chronic conditions can be prevented through healthy lifestyle changes.

However, many Canadians lack the support they need to start the journey towards transforming their health, notes Greenshield, citing previous studies.

“As a group of employers, we haven't done a particularly good job around preventative care,” says Joe Blomeley, executive vice president, head of GreenShield Health and Enterprise Growth at GreenShield.

“If you look at our health care system today, it's meant for acute care — you break your leg, you have a heart attack, the system's pretty well constructed to serve you. But in terms of actually getting in front of chronic diseases, finding ways to reverse course, when it comes to eventually getting a chronic disease, we're not particularly strong at that.”

Currently, nine 10 Canadians have at least one risk factor for heart disease and stroke, but 70 per cent don't know what those risk factors are, notes Blomeley.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, two-thirds (66 per cent) of Canadians living with a chronic illness or major illness faced challenges accessing treatment and care, according to a previous report.

How does chronic disease affect people’s work?

With workers struggling through chronic diseases, employers are dealing with absenteeism and a potential loss of productivity, says Blomeley.

“Pain management, dealing with a chronic disease… it does take up a lot of time. It can be distracting for both an employee, as well for the team that has an employee dealing with chronic diseases. 

“To fully bring your full self, your best self to the workplace – finding ways to manage and prevent chronic diseases – helps improve productivity. And then it's important for employers to think about preventative care programs, because it helps improve engagement. It shows that you care about your employees, that you want to make their work life better, but you also want to make their home life better.”

Potentially, more than 100,000 Canadians living with undiagnosed chronic diseases did not begin treatment during the pandemic, according to a previous report.

How do you handle chronic illness in the workplace?

The current situation points to a need for employers to implement a workplace program to address workers’ chronic illnesses.

To do this, many employers can follow a similar pattern to the one used in creating mental health programs, says Blomeley.

“I looked at mental health 15-20 years ago, there wasn't a whole lot being done around mental health services within employer bases. Partially that was because of stigma related to mental health, and part of that was there wasn't dedicated budgets or programming around mental health services. That's changed dramatically in the last 20 years,” he says.

“Now, you have employers offering employee and family assistance programs, you have them offering programs like internet-[based] cognitive behavioural therapy, so there is a track record for employers that have built a program that have helped employees manage one aspect of chronic disease, which is mental illness. 

“So following a similar template could work for employers.”

A September 2023 report found that employees give their employers a score of 6.6 out of 10 – up from the 4.4 score back in 2021 – when it comes to mental health supports in the workplace.

The business case for chronic disease prevention program

And employers have to take a business-case approach to creating a program that addresses chronic diseases, says Blomeley.

“It can't just be simply something you do out of the goodness of your heart as an employer. There has to be a business case and proper metrics around the development of a program to manage and determine whether the program is effective or not. 

“Just like so many other parts of how you run your business, if you're going to build a chronic disease program, you should be thinking about the return on investment of that program. You should be monitoring health outcomes and determining whether you're actually reducing symptomology in the workplace or getting people on the right path when it comes to chronic diseases or chronic disease prevention.”

The other key ingredient is storytelling from leadership, says Blomeley.

“When leaders within an organization talk about their own personal experiences with mental health challenges or family mental health issues… it reduces some of the stigma, and gets people a bit more comfortable talking about these issues coming forward seeking help for these issues. 

“And it's the same thing around chronic diseases.”

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