Focusing on physical health

Total Health Index shows higher levels of physical activity, nutrition and sleep can link to higher levels of workplace engagement and productivity

Focusing on physical health

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On a scale of one to five, how concerned are you as an HR leader about your employees’ physical health?

Regardless of the score, the real question is why you chose that number. Typically, HR leaders concerned about physical health understand the financial cost as well as the potential loss of productivity. Those who aren’t as concerned may not believe employers have a role to play in promoting physical health, or perhaps they’re not aware of the financial impact or benefits of doing so.

It’s common knowledge that employees at higher levels of physical health risk (such as those with obesity or high cholesterol) are more likely to develop chronic disease. More than one-half (53 per cent) of the Canadian workforce has at least one chronic disease that drives disability claims, absences and presenteeism, according to Sun Life.

One expensive chronic disease that’s often directly related to employees’ lifestyle choices is type 2 diabetes. About 10 per cent of Canada’s population has diabetes, which suggests that in an organization with 1,000 employees, about 100 may be diabetic.

Thirty per cent of people with diabetes also experience symptoms of depression, and 10 per cent will develop major depression, according to Diabetes Canada.

A 2013 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reported the lifetime direct costs for treating type 2 diabetes and its complications in the workplace population for men aged 25 to 44 is estimated to be US$124,700, and for men aged 55-64, US$88,200.

One way for employees to reduce their risk for diabetes is improving their physical health by engaging in regular activity and healthy nutrition.

Morneau Shepell’s total health research found that employees’ physical health pillar is a significant predictor for their Total Health Index (THI), which, in essence, is a resiliency index. The higher the THI, the more energized and resilient an employee is to manage her daily demands and recover from setbacks or push through adversity.

The table to the right shows some of the interesting relationships found for physical health, nutrition and sleep – three key elements that define an individual’s physical health.

THI research found that employees with higher levels of physical activity, nutrition and sleep were more likely to have higher levels of engagement and productivity. They were less likely to report for work feeling unwell, and more motivated than employees with lower levels of physical activity, sleep and nutrition.

Employees with higher scores were also more likely to trust their manager, possibly because they have more energy to engage and build relationships with their manager and their team.

The research illustrates the benefit for employers that take an active role in promoting physical health. This can have a more profound impact than just driving down drug, sick time and disability costs.

Physical health can play a role in reducing employees’ risk for mental health issues such as burnout which often start with physical and mental fatigue. Physical health can also play a positive role in maximizing employees’ productivity.

Here are some ways HR can build the physical health pillar:

Accept that not all employees are at the same starting place: Just because an employer offers a program doesn’t mean all employees are ready to go to the gym, change their diet or make sleep a priority. This may be why many random acts of wellness, such as offering a physical challenge, rarely engage most of the population over an extended period.

Too many employers make the mistake of purchasing programming that’s just for the employees who are ready to go (call this group green). They typically make up 30 to 40 per cent of the population. These programs don’t support or encourage employees who may be stuck due to some perceived barrier such as time (yellow) or feeling hopeless and giving up (red).

The solution is to offer programs that support all employees’ current state of readiness. The end goal is to help those in the red category move to yellow, yellow to move to green, and to sustain the greens.

Commit to program evaluation: Offering programming is wonderful, but without measuring and evaluating the percentage of employees who are using programs and comparing their costs and productivity to those who are not engaging or participating in programs, there is no defendable way to determine if the program investment demonstrated any return on investment (ROI).

When done correctly, evaluation will assist HR to determine what programs are working and having an impact by providing evidence-based financial results.

Bill Howatt, Ph.D., Ed.D., is chief of research, workforce productivity at the Conference Board of Canada and former chief of research and development, workforce productivity, at Morneau Shepell. For more information and education about the company’s Total Health Index (THI), visit the company’s website at

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