Canada all talk, no action on wellness

Expert says Canadian firms trail U.S. when it comes to wellness programs

Edward Buffett has made it his personal mission to spread the message that wellness programs are a strategic imperative. If staff are a business’s most valuable asset, then wellness programs not only make economic sense as an investment in human capital, they’re a necessity, says the president of Buffett Taylor and Associates, a consulting company based in Whitby, Ont. that has a strong emphasis on workplace wellness programs.

Buffett Taylor’s National Wellness Survey Report 2000, the most recent one available, found only 17 per cent of Canadian employers surveyed offer comprehensive wellness programs, although 67 per cent offered single-issue wellness initiatives like smoking cessation programs.

“In the U.S., the employer and employee are more involved in paying for health and medical care than we are here,” because of medicare. “That’s our good fortune,” says Buffett. But it means that U.S. employers are probably more motivated to take an active role in reducing health-care costs than they are in Canada, he adds.

That observation is supported by the fact that wellness programs in the U.S. date back to the 1960s, when medicare was introduced in Canada. “They have embraced it more than we have.” In fact, 67 of Fortune Magazine’s top 100 companies have comprehensive wellness programs, while in Canada they’re still the exception.

Canadian subsidiaries of U.S.-based companies are often “standing on the sidelines” when it comes to comprehensive wellness programs, while in the U.S., the parent corporations “are real advocates.”

Buffett attributes the difference in attitude to “a rather naive view in this country that someone else is paying for health care. Of course, we all pay for it,” through personal and corporate taxes, as well as through reduced productivity that affects competitiveness. In addition, the mounting pressures on Canada’s health-care system are obvious across the country.

“Every employer and every wage earner pays for poor health indirectly through taxes,” says Buffett. “We haven’t figured that out yet.”

One of his concerns is the tilting balance between work and other aspects of life. While there’s more talk about of work-life balance as workplace wellness, it doesn’t reflect reality, says Buffett, who cites evidence from the Canadian Research Policy Network (CPRN) and other sources to support his criticism that there’s more talk than action.

Canadian employers talk about wellness more than they used to, and there are growing concerns about the costs of absenteeism, stress and other issues, but Buffett says businesses have to ask themselves “to what extent are we part of the problem? A lot of companies talk about the need for balance, while expecting employees to work 70 hours a week.”

A recent CPRN report states that since the mid-1970s, the rate of Canadian workers working more than 50 hours a week has grown from 11.3 per cent of the workforce to 13.7 per cent. Federal data on overtime shows that in the first quarter of 1997, one-fifth of the workforce reported working overtime, and that they worked an average of nine additional hours a week. The report was written by Linda Duxbury of Carleton University’s School of Business in Ottawa and Chris Higgins of the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario.

While full-time workers are working more than they would like, part-time workers put in fewer hours than they want. That’s part of the reason about 37 per cent of workers report that they are highly stressed on the job, says Buffett.

Absenteeism due to work-life conflict costs Canadian corporations almost $3 billion a year, and adds an estimated $425 million to the country’s health-care expenditures, according to the CPRN report, Work-Life Balance in the New Millennium.

There are many arguments in favour of business taking a comprehensive approach to workplace wellness, but it’s easier to justify fixing a problem than preventing one, despite the higher costs, says Buffett. Although there are notable exceptions, the corporate sector has failed to embrace concepts like flex time and job sharing, which can make up for the need to work “ridiculously long hours” at times. “The organizations that are doing these things well show very tangible benefits.”

Wellness programs are proactive and preventive, while “employee assistance programs (EAPs), which are more common, are a reactive prescription for something that has occurred,” often because of the growing imbalance between work and the rest of an employee’s life. “EAP is important, but its not the same as prevention.”

Buffett says part of the reason for the discontinuity may be that the wrong people are being promoted to management and supervisory positions, in the sense that they are not equipped to deal with subordinates in a constructive way and don’t receive training to make up for the lack of appropriate skills. “We need to invest more in that.”

The return on investment for a comprehensive wellness program may be hard to quantify, but the cost per employee works out to less than $10 per month – along the lines of the cost for a hamburger, french fries and soft drink per employee, says Buffett. That compares to the cost of replacing an employee, which is estimated at five times the annual salary for professional staff and the equivalent of a year’s salary for non-professional staff, says Buffett.

Companies should be concerned about work-life conflict, whether employees are making sacrifices at work for the sake of the family or short-changing the family for the sake of work. Either way, employers lose in the long run, he says. That’s one of the reasons that the CPRN’s top recommendation for employers was to devote more resources to improving “people management” practices in the workplace.

It also urged employers to give employees more control and flexibility at work, and create more supportive work environments.

At the same time, the report urged employees to take full advantage of supports provided by employers, which would include wellness programs and EAP services, Buffett said.

“There’s a lot of research that suggests that health promotion at work can have a dramatic impact on absenteeism, employee productivity and morale,” but that evidence is largely being ignored.

Health promotion works best at school and work, where there is “a captive audience,” Buffett says. “I don’t think we do either one well in this country.”

Mike Moralis is communications director for the Toronto District Health Council and a freelance writer.

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