The silent strain: how chronic disease is affecting your bottom line

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by Anne Nicoll

Chronic disease in the workplace is more prevalent than you may think. The Public Health Agency of Canada’s 2014 survey found 60% of Canadians aged 20 years or older have a chronic disease and 80% are at risk of developing one1.

While chronic diseases such as depression, diabetes, and heart disease often display no predominant visual clues, they impact productivity and are silent strains your bottom line. But business leaders aren’t connecting those dots in their workforce. The 2015 Sanofi Health Survey shows employers believe only 26% of their workforce might have a chronic disease2 – a far cry from the known 60% of Canadians diagnosed.

That’s a noteworthy gap in awareness of this major business issue. Let’s look at it from a different perspective: If 60% of your supply chain was interrupted tomorrow, your business would be in trouble. You’d be taking immediate action to resolve the issue and resume operations at full capacity. The Canadian economy can’t afford to ignore the impact chronic disease is having on human capital.

It’s not just a health care problem – it’s a business problem

For some employers these stats may come as a shock: they don’t see the issue in their businesses today. Other organizations know there’s a problem in their workforce and have put some wellness programs in place. However, these come with mixed results, as wellness programs are often more health fanfare than actionable tools for employees in need. And there’s another segment that sees the issue but doesn’t see it as their responsibility.

At the end of the day, this is a real problem for everyone. Chronic disease is affecting productivity and your bottom line. Everyone needs help with this. While employers can’t force healthy changes (and employees may not even want them to), they can control certain elements in the workplace environment, champion a health-conscious corporate culture, and make supports that employees will see as a fit for their personal circumstances available and accessible.

Breaking down the challenge

Before healthy changes in the workplace can be rolled out, organizations need to understand where their workforce is health-wise, and what tools are needed. When you take an analytical look at your organization, you’re likely to see four buckets that your employees fall into, each with unique health support needs:

  1. Health champions.
    They are eating well, exercising, and engaged. This group is at low risk of developing chronic disease and can be supported with active health tools like activity trackers, office wellness committees, and healthy snack options. Shine a spotlight on these people and encourage their behaviours – they’re a great resource within the workplace to encourage little healthy changes among interested colleagues.
  2. Sedentary staff.
    This group doesn’t move much during the day and aren’t as engaged with traditional wellness offerings. They have behavioral risk factors for chronic disease, and could benefit from targeted health options and accessible health intervention supports as they move along their personal health journey.
  3. Health aware employees.
    These people have a diagnosed chronic disease and they’re currently managing it well. They may not want dictated health interventions, but could benefit from increased education on what’s available to them as part of a comprehensive health benefits plan.
  4. Health unaware employees.
    Members of this group have a diagnosed chronic disease, and could be at risk for other conditions, because they’re not managing their condition appropriately. They need support, but they may not be ready for change and they may not want it addressed at work. They need targeted approaches to encourage small steps and accessible and personalized tools throughout their stages of change.

Managing chronic disease has enough challenges – accessing support shouldn’t be one of them

Managing chronic disease is a complex undertaking for an individual. It’s also a very personal. Making it easy to access a wide range of tools that actually work is a sound investment in your organization.

At Medavie Blue Cross, we work with our clients to implement health benefit solutions that are sustainable and support all stages of each member’s life. In response to the growing need for chronic disease management supports, we’ve developed a new managing chronic disease program. This extended health benefit makes managing diabetes, asthma, and COPD easier for plan members and their families. This is one example of a tool that is both personal and accessible at all stages of health that can be incorporated into a workplace benefits offering to support employees with chronic disease.

We spend most of our waking lives at work. Our work environments impact our health and our health impacts our work. Employers have a unique opportunity to influence the health of their employees. By taking a strategic, forward-thinking approach, you can help create a healthier workforce and bottom line.

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