How employers can promote healthier employee lifestyles to help control healthcare costs over the long term.

Since the sanofi-aventis Healthcare Survey was first published more than 10 years ago, the one finding that has been consistently and abundantly clear is that group benefits plans are highly valued by plan members. In 2007, when asked if they would rather have $20,000 cash or their health benefits plan, 61% of respondents said they’d rather have the plan. But does this mean that they understand the costs and are willing to share them?

In this year’s survey, 76% of respondents indicated that they have an obligation to help their employers control plan costs. An overwhelming majority (96%) believes that preventing disease, illness and injury would help control the costs of health benefits plans. Often, though, employees don’t know how to help. Employers may interpret this as an “entitlement” approach to health benefits but in many cases, very little has been communicated to employees regarding costs.

Here’s where employers can play an important role. Engaging employees to adopt new behaviours and healthy lifestyles is emerging as a longer-term strategy to control costs and improve employee health and productivity. Employers with workplace health education and wellness programs attract goodwill from their employees, who are more likely to believe that their employers care about their health.

But education alone isn’t enough to produce change. Employees also need tools and information to make better choices. Employers need to make it easier for employees to do the right thing by helping them understand the benefits of changing certain health-related behaviours.

And it has to be personal. Health risk assessment tools (such as Check Up from the Neck Up, ParticipAction and the Canadian Health Network) and disease screening can help employees understand where they are personally at risk. Because not all employees will be entirely willing and ready to change, employers also need to help them identify the pros and cons of making personal changes, thereby making them more accountable for understanding and protecting their health.

According to the majority (96%) of survey respondents, employees are comfortable with their employers encouraging the prevention of disease, illness and injury, and helping employees to manage their health. Employers should be willing to look at targeted health education, including pointing employees to credible sources for information and prevention or disease management strategies and initiatives. They need to take a holistic approach, as the benefits plan design and funding must line up with health intervention and motivation initiatives. And they shouldn’t wait for the government to act—instead, they should use, adapt and expand existing public resources (e.g., Telehealth Ontario and B.C.’s Your Health online service) to improve health and productivity.

Over the past years, the sanofi-aventis Healthcare Survey has noted correlations between benefits plan quality, job satisfaction and positive employer image. They are all indicators of a good place to work. It’s important, then, that employers look beyond the design of their benefits plans to focus on creating a healthy workplace environment.

Stress has emerged as the No. 1 health risk in the workplace. Almost four in 10 respondents (39%) to the 2008 survey agree that their workplace stress has been so overwhelming at times that it has made them physically ill. More troubling is that this is up from 25% in 2002. As noted in the survey results, “this increase may indicate that Canadian workplaces have not kept pace in accommodating lives that are stretched between work, family and personal issues.”

Employers need to pay attention to their work culture and how their policies and practices affect employees—particularly in the face of talent shortages. Companies can no longer afford to dismiss their workplace wellness programs as a cost of employment. As the survey points out, savvy employers will consider these programs “an investment in employee health and retention.”

Investment in employee health has all the makings of a great partnership. If employees and employers are engaged in making this investment together, they can cross the threshold into a new era of productivity and cost control.

Wendy Bott is manager, health and welfare administration, with Buck Consultants, an ACS company.

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© Copyright 2008 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the June 2008 edition of BENEFITS CANADA magazine.