Tough economic headwinds, rising rates of chronic illness and spiralling healthcare costs make maintaining a healthy workforce more critical to business success now than ever before. In addition, the war for talent means that employers are increasingly looking to innovative employee benefits to attract and retain the best people. Organizations that have built a culture of wellness are reaping greater rewards, such as enhanced productivity, employee engagement and benefits cost containment.

In the fall of 2011, the Sun Life Wellness Institute released the findings of the 2011 Buffett National Wellness Survey, involving more than 650 Canadian employers. Ninety-seven percent of respondents agreed that employee health is directly related to corporate success, and most reported that they have begun to offer wellness programs, with 72% offering at least one such initiative to their employees.

While these numbers appear promising, closer examination of the survey responses reveals that many organizations have yet to make a strategic commitment to wellness. Very telling are the most common wellness initiatives that the survey respondents report offering their employees. Topping the list are lower-impact initiatives: for example, flu vaccinations (70%), CPR training (64%) and ergonomic/workstation assessments (58%). While initiatives of this type are valuable, it’s unlikely that they will have a meaningful impact on the prevention of high-cost chronic illness. Meanwhile, the survey found that many high-impact initiatives requiring greater organizational commitment—such as blood pressure screenings (30%), wellness needs assessments (19%) and cholesterol screenings (18%)—are offered much less frequently.

Only a small percentage of Canadian employers are truly taking a business-minded approach to their wellness model. According to the Buffett survey, just 26% of Canadian employers are taking a strategic approach to wellness—that is, a plan that includes data analysis, multiple initiatives, follow-up, continuous evaluation and a method to calculate return on investment (ROI).

Wellness: A must-have
The rising incidence of chronic disease is taking a growing toll on Canadian organizations. Health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer and depression continue to increase significantly, robbing organizations of productivity and causing their medical costs to escalate.

The good news is that most chronic conditions are preventable. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 80% of heart disease and diabetes, and 40% of most cancers, are largely preventable through proper diet, physical activity and smoking cessation. Given this—and the reality that organizations can have a significant influence over the health of employees—a workplace wellness program is no longer simply a nice-to-have. Further, employees are looking to their employers to support them, with six out of 10 Canadians in the 2010 Sun Life Canadian Health Index reporting that their employer has some responsibility toward ensuring their good health.

According to Towers Watson’s 2009/10 Staying@Work Report, organizations with highly effective health and productivity programs report 11% higher revenue per employee and 28% greater shareholder returns. And a 2010 World Economic Forum report indicated that in organizations perceived as actively promoting health and well-being, 55% of employees reported being engaged, compared with just 7% in organizations that are not perceived as promoting health and wellness.

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