Building the business case for wellness

Four-year study will offer Nova Scotia government workers wellness — and measure the results

Good health is a key driver of business success. There is virtual unanimity on this — workplace wellness initiatives can help increase employee satisfaction, motivation and productivity, and decrease benefit costs.

The hard part has been proving it. That’s why Sun Life Financial is co-sponsoring a new four-year health and wellness study, The Healthy Workplace Project, with the Atlantic Health and Wellness Institute, the Nova Scotia Department of Justice, AstraZeneca Canada Inc. and Pfizer Canada Inc. A wellness plan will be drawn up and implemented for justice department employees, and the results tracked.

The partnership illustrates a fundamental shift in attitudes toward rising employee benefit costs, the importance of wellness and health promotion and the evolving role of benefits providers.

In the past, providers like Sun Life offered a fairly conventional portfolio of products. Of late, that has been changing. Frustrated by rising benefit costs, client organizations are looking to partner with benefit providers to help control those costs.

To meet customer demands, plan providers have become more ready to explore unconventional approaches to employee health — taking a more holistic approach to cover the entire health continuum including absence management, disability case management, treatment facilitation, rehabilitation and prevention services like wellness programs and employee assistance plan offerings.

This new wellness study is evidence of that new approach. Conducted by the Atlantic Health and Wellness Institute, the study will break ground in two ways. It will implement workplace wellness in a more comprehensive and integrated manner than has been seen before. And it will evaluate the process based on clinical and economic factors, tracking the change in workplace claims data as employee health improves.

“While many employers have embraced wellness programs, there is a need to better understand the impact these programs can have on business results and benefit costs. This study will help us support our clients’ wellness initiatives,” said Brigitte Parent, vice-president of group benefits, Sun Life Financial. “This is an opportunity for Sun Life to help our customers improve their employees’ health, control benefit costs, reduce absenteeism and increase productivity.”

The study should provide new measurement tools for client organizations to show in quantifiable terms the impact of wellness initiatives on business results and benefit costs.

Nova Scotia sets the pace

The comprehensive study will include more than 800 employees of the Nova Scotia Public Service Commission’s Department of Justice. “Our employees are looking forward to taking part in this study. Not only will they benefit directly, but the department will benefit as well,” noted Justice Minister Michael Baker.

Atlantic Canadians are predominantly at risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer due to higher than average per capita rates of smoking, physical inactivity and obesity. Backed by Rodney MacDonald, Nova Scotia’s Minister of Health Promotion, Nova Scotia has taken a lead in addressing these issues — the same health issues that numerous Canadians face.

The project was officially launched in January at a news conference in Halifax.

“The importance of workplace wellness cannot be underestimated,” said MacDonald. “Individuals spend much of their day on the job. If part of that time can promote health then we all benefit — the employee, their families, their communities and their companies.”

A national model

The Healthy Workplace Project is unique in its in-depth analysis to support the business case for workplace wellness. It will serve as both a provincial and national model.

The project examines workplace health and wellness programs and their impact on:

•costs such as health and disability benefits, workers’ compensation, absenteeism, workplace accidents, disabilities, employee turnover;

•health determinants such as blood pressure, cholesterol, body mass index; and

•organizational effectiveness, such as productivity, employee and management commitment.

Pre- and post-evaluations are critical to a program’s success. At the outset, the Health and Wellness Institute will evaluate the existing state of the department’s workplace and employee health in order to develop a comprehensive workplace wellness program tailored to the organization’s needs.

Designed to create a healthy workplace by addressing all three components of a comprehensive program, it will identify:

•individual health practices such as smoking, inactivity and unhealthy eating;

•organizational health issues such as job satisfaction and stress; and

•physical work environment such as ergonomics and musculoskeletal injury prevention.

Over the course of the study, a variety of screening tools and assessments, supportive environment and policy, and educational programs and counselling will be used to improve employee health and create a healthier workplace. The study will also include a detailed six-month post-evaluation.

Partners in health

The success of any health management program requires partnerships with all stakeholders — the employer, union representatives, corporate occupational health-care staff and benefits consultants — so that all partners fully support the program.

Studies show that with the right kinds of needs-directed information and education a large number of health risks can be prevented or corrected before they become disabilities.

“Ultimately, our goal is to help provide ‘big picture’ insights into employee health conditions and risks,” said Parent of Sun Life. “We want to help customers formulate the necessary business case for their health and wellness initiatives and track their organizations’ return on investment in those initiatives.

Why does it fall to providers to offer tools?

“We’ll leverage our learning from the study to help provide the measurement tools they need,” said Parent. “They’ll be better able to show — in quantifiable terms — the relationship between employee health and benefit plan costs.”

The objective is to provide the tools and information plan members need to make informed decisions about their health, to promote healthy behaviour and self-care, and to promote more informed relationships between patients and their health-care providers, she said.

Although workplaces cannot be responsible for an employee’s health, organizations can provide employees with the resources to help them achieve optimal health. At least the challenge of quantifying results will soon be behind us.

Terry Martin is director, group products & services, marketing & strategic development, for Sun Life Financial’s Group Benefits. She can be reached at (416) 408-7273 or [email protected].

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