Chronic conditions have become the norm in the workplace and, according to the World Health Organization, chronic disease is expected to account for 89% of all deaths in Canada. But what can plan sponsors do to keep employees healthy and engaged?
Patient’s Voice presented its second annual survey of employees living with chronic disease last week at the Sutton Place Hotel in Toronto. There were two surveys conducted online in early June 2011, one with 217 patients diagnosed with serious or chronic illness and one with 103 plan sponsors that offer a benefits plan to employees.
Results of the survey indicated that chronic conditions pose a significant burden on employers as they experience loss in productivity due to absenteeism, presenteeism and short-term disability. As just one example, employees affected by chronic illness spend about 48 minutes out of their workday dealing with their condition, according to the survey.
Three expert panelists weighed in on the findings.
Chris MacDonald, assistant vice-president, health management services, group benefits, with Manulife Financial, reiterated the costs for employers on health benefits, short-term disability and long-term disability.
She also noted that there are indirect costs. When the individual is not in the workplace, there are costs for overtime, and a health impact on other employees who may be stressed as a result of the extra workflow. As well, an ill employee may spend a significant amount of time researching his or her disease on the Internet while at work, or talking about it with colleagues—which can amount to a big loss of productivity.
Suzanne Lepage, private health plan strategist with Suzanne Lepage Consulting Inc., said that when employers don’t track absenteeism and productivity, it’s hard to know the full impact on their business. When it comes to human capital, it’s easy for employers to say they can’t figure it out and can’t track it, so they don’t pay attention, she said. “If you’re going to measure downtime on a piece of machinery, then why not measure downtime on human capital?”
Measuring was also a focus for Dr. Alain Sotto, chief physician, wellness division, with Ontario Power Generation. “We measure days lost, short-term disability, long-term disability and drug costs, and we do a great job,” said Sotto, “but we don’t publicize it enough; companies need to do more.” For example, he suggests companies advertise their focus on health with campaigns such as, “We’ve had million of hours without lost time due to sickness.”
The panelists agreed they’ve seen a shift, as employers now view group benefits plans as an investment for their employees, as opposed to simply a necessary cost of doing business. But while benefits plans can help, there is also the issue of prevention.
“The key is prevention, prevention, prevention,” Sotto reminded the audience. “That’s the hallmark of saving chronic disease in the workplace.” According to Sotto, plan sponsors need to follow the four Es of prevention:
- educate your employees;
- engage them;
- empower them with knowledge; and
- enable and facilitate them with some kind of referral program, whatever the case may be.
“The government can’t do it all by itself,” he said.
Sotto added that plan sponsors enshrine safety (think the Occupational Health and Safety Act) but don’t really do the same with health. “If you can’t be healthy, how are you going to be safe at work?” he asked. “If you’re preoccupied at work with your illness, that translates to me into a person not being safe. Let’s enshrine the health component and do the same thing for health that we did for safety.”