Benefits Canada’s 2014 Healthy Outcomes Conference explored the return on investment in health and wellness programs—and how to create change for the better

Employers are increasingly realizing that the health and wellness of their employees affects the health and wellness of the organization. But when it comes to developing a strategy that truly delivers return on investment (ROI), many long-held beliefs may not be what they seem. What are the gaps in incentivizing wellness, and how can employers get the whole picture?

The theme of this year’s conference was Mindful Wellness: Challenging the Status Quo. More than 60 delegates participated in think-tank sessions and interactive workshops to discuss and debate wellness topics in good conscience: what’s working and what isn’t, as well as how to create more effective wellness initiatives that reward both employees and employers.

Why Wellness Isn’t Working and How We Can Fix It

There is a gap between how healthy Canadians think they are and what’s really going on in their bodies—driven, in part, by high levels of health illiteracy, explained David Willows, vice- president, strategic market solutions, with Green Shield Canada.

Willows said a surprising 60% of adult Canadians have a low level of health literacy, meaning that they’re unable to act on information and services to make appropriate health decisions. That ignorance can lead them to ignore or misdiagnose their own health issues, increasing the risk that the problems will worsen.

Willows pointed to data showing that people with low health literacy skills are 2.5 times more likely to be in fair or poor health. “The importance of health literacy on health and health behaviour is evident,” he said.

And it’s a growing concern for employers and insurers, which are already coping with the escalating costs of employee health and benefits programs—particularly as the large baby boomer segment of the workforce gets older and relies more heavily on these plans.

Looking at the average company, Willows said it’s estimated that about 20% of employees are intrinsically committed to managing their health. About 60% can be influenced to be healthier but struggle with finding the time or incentive to get fit and eat better. “We need to focus more on [employees] and try to get them engaged,” he added.

It’s the last 20%—the least healthy employees—who are hard-wired to have poor health habits and will be difficult to influence.

Willows also pointed out that only 20% of claimants within Green Shield’s client base account for 75% of the drug costs. Furthermore, the top 5% account for 45% of the costs. Common diseases among both sets of employees include arthritis, diabetes, depression, asthma and hypertension. In many cases, employees may take medication for one or more of these diseases.

While the data is discouraging, Willows said companies can address the challenges of an unhealthy workforce through more strategic and proactive health and wellness programs. He believes there’s a misalignment today between what is currently offered at many organizations and the high-risk health issues that employees face—most prominently in a sedentary lifestyle.

“By keeping employees healthy, wellness programs are seen as a way to improve employee productivity, reduce absenteeism and disability costs, reduce healthcare/drug costs and attract employees,” Willows added.

Keynote Session: Harness the Hurricane
Adapt to Extreme Change and Achieve New Heights

Change is constant and unpredictable. It can also be scary—especially when it’s happening to you and your organization.

The best way to handle change is to “accept and let go” of the past and “find opportunity in the rubble,” said Dr. Mark DeVolder, a change and engagement specialist with Synergy Sense Consulting Ltd.
“Accept doesn’t mean agree,” he continued. “It means, it happened and there is nothing you can do about it—other than accept the fact that it happened.”

DeVolder—whose experience includes coaching companies through mergers and acquisitions and offering guidance to NASA— said there are three stages that most organizations go through when dealing with change: the Crisis, the Holding Period and the New Beginning.

Each stage requires work to succeed, he noted. “Some companies are doing well around the issue of change. Some are trying and failing miserably.”

The Crisis is when a change is announced or forced upon a company. DeVolder explained that the three most important questions to ask during this phase are as follows:

  1. What is the change?
  2. What will be different?
  3. Who is losing/gaining?

“It needs to be stated succinctly for people,” he said. “To help people accept and let go, it’s important to articulate and have them understand what they will be losing— because they will be losing something.”

The Holding Period is the time when change seems to drag on. It’s also when conflict often happens, noted DeVolder. For many people and companies going through change, this period is often quite challenging.

“The work of Stage 2 is that we have to learn to wait patiently and learn as much as we can,” he said.

While the Holding Period is tough, DeVolder noted that it’s actually Stage 3, the New Beginning, that many people find the most difficult at the end of the change process.

“This is when it actually happens: the big transition. Will they make it? There are no guarantees,” he said. “The work is to let go and take a leap of faith. That can be difficult. Ultimately, it comes down to making decisions.”

DeVolder recommended that employers help their employees focus on the positive aspects of change and the opportunities it will bring, while also acknowledging the challenges they’ll face together.

“By showing them they know both sides, leaders will help people let go,” he said. “There will still be resistance, but leaders who are able to be compassionate while identifying why change is necessary will be most successful. It has to be genuine.”