Lip service to wellness abounds

Many corporate programs offer niceties while ignoring stress, survey shows

There’s a mismatch between what many corporate wellness programs offer and what employees feel they need, according to a recent survey of 420 Canadian employers.

What’s more, employers recognize they’re not offering employees what they need. Stress management, for example, tops a list of employer concerns, but it barely squeezes in at number 10 in a list of programs offered.

“What rings a warning bell for us is that organizations have a reasonably good sense of what the health issues are within their organization. Stress management was number one. A sedentary lifestyle and a lack of exercise was number two,” said Ed Buffett, president of Buffett Taylor and Associates, the Whitby, Ont.-based health and wellness provider which conducted the Buffett Taylor National wellness survey report 2003. “But the real disconcerting thing is when you look at that, there didn’t seem to be a correlation between an organization’s health concerns and what types of programs it was offering.”

Of the 420 organizations survey in the report, half are private sector, one-third are public-sector employers and non-profits make up the rest. Nearly half of the respondents employed less than 250 people in their Canadian operations.

Five in six offer some wellness initiative; in the 2000 survey that number was one in three. Of those that offer a wellness initiative, only one in five (19.6 per cent) offers a comprehensive program.

“Too many companies are nibbling around the edges. All the data tell us that an effective wellness program requires baseline data. You’ve got to be evaluating outcomes on a continuous basis. You have to be offering multiple initiatives. And that’s simply not happening to any greater extent today than was happening in 2000 or in 1997,” said Buffett.

“There are a core group of approximately 19 per cent of employers who get it, and who do a very good job of it. And the other 80 per cent are just paying lip service to it.”

According to the report, lifestyle factors loom large among employer concerns. Poor stress management, a lack of exercise and an inability to juggle work and home demands are among the top lifestyle health issues HR professionals identified (see chart page 9).

However, when employers were asked to check off the programs they offered, First Aid training, employee assistance programs and flu shot clinics came first. Flexible work programs made number eight, but other initiatives to address work organization and work scheduling didn’t make the top 10 list. Stress management came in at number 10 (see chart page 9).

Buffett said the biggest reason offered for a lack of such programs was cost. When asked to what extent budgetary restraints are prohibiting organizations from pursuing a comprehensive wellness program, 45.4 per cent of respondents said, “Somewhat,” and 39.9 per cent said, “To a Great Extent.” One in 20 said budget limitations are the only roadblock, whereas one in 10 said budget concerns are not at all a factor.

“Not only is a lack of funding precluding an organization from even having a wellness program, but in many instances where organizations do have a program, the funding is so sparse that they’re not able to do all the things they should be doing,” said Buffett.

Asked if the wording in the survey may have led respondents to emphasize individual lifestyle concerns over other organizational health issues — such as injury claims, absenteeism and compliance — Buffett replied that the list of lifestyle concerns identified in the survey are typically the same concerns voiced by client organizations. “If we look at our individual clients, these would be the top 10 issues at every employer,” he noted.

He also noted that most organizations (68.6 per cent) don’t evaluate their wellness programs. While it’s more common to find employers that analyze claims data, workers’ compensation data and drug utilization (61.1 per cent), only 37.5 per cent of respondents record baseline data to measure the impact of programs.

“One of the things we found discouraging is many organizations are simply not trying to determine the return on their investment as it relates to wellness. Now, we recognize that it’s not an easy thing to do. But we also recognize that in difficult times, when organizations are looking at reducing expenses, if you can’t validate the effectiveness of your program, chances are it will be cut.”

At the Toronto-based Canadian Institute of Stress, managing director Richard Earle said organizations are generally leery of stress management programs because the effectiveness of such programs is so difficult to measure. That’s why some organizations are turning away from broad-based programs and opting instead for interventions tailored to individual needs, said Earle.

At the National Quality Institute, a Toronto-based non-profit association for healthy workplace promotion, vice-president Kathryn Cestnick said organizations still need more education on the business case for wellness initiatives.

“Companies see results as they go. What they see is when they invest $1 in a wellness program, they could get back $3 to $10 eventually, through savings on drug plans, through less days off work, etc. There really is a business case, and employers that are measuring this stuff do see costs coming down, and they don’t want to stop because they see the benefits.”

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