The current state of healthcare in Canada is riddled with challenges: the population is aging rapidly; there is an increase in obesity, diabetes and heart disease; and healthcare costs are soaring.

In late 2010, Sun Life Financial launched the Canadian Health Index, a landmark study conducted by Ipsos Reid. A nationally representative sample of 4,000 Canadians was surveyed to better understand their health-related attitudes, behaviours and perceptions. Results from 45 questions were analyzed to calculate an overall health index score of 68.5 out of 100—this means that on a health report card, Canadians would assign themselves a C grade.

Moreover, 81% of respondents believe that most diseases are preventable, which is in line with the World Health Organization’s report that 80% of heart disease and diabetes—and 40% of most cancers—are preventable by reducing key risk factors. However, 63% of those surveyed indicated that they demonstrate three or more unhealthy behaviours on a regular basis, such as low levels of physical activity, use of tobacco and lower consumption of fruits and vegetables, all of which are disease risk factors.

What is preventing Canadians from adopting a healthier lifestyle? In the Canadian Health Index, 61% of Canadians surveyed rank a lack of willpower as the primary barrier, followed closely by a lack of time (46%) and a lack of money (39%).

With Canadians spending more than 36 hours a week at work, wellness programs could act as a support mechanism to help Canadians overcome these barriers and adopt healthy lifestyles. Workplace health solutions can provide employees with targeted health messages, more convenient access, a supportive environment or employer-subsidized programs in order to help change behaviour and reap the financial and productivity rewards of a healthy workforce.

There is a growing body of evidence to support the impact of employee wellness programs on the bottom line.

According to a 2010 Harvard University study, for every dollar spent on wellness programs, medical costs fall by about $3.27 and absenteeism costs by $2.73. In addition, the Towers Watson 2009/10 Staying@Work report shows that employers with highly effective wellness programs have performed more than 55% better than their industry peers, achieved higher average revenue per employee and seen less absence, disability and total turnover, as well as lower annual medical costs.

The Sun Life Wellness Institute, launched this past spring, aims to become the leading health and wellness knowledge exchange for Canadian employers by providing evidence and insight that will influence positive outcomes in the health and well-being of working Canadians. Sun Life will also partner with the Richard Ivey School of Business at The University of Western Ontario in a pioneering Canadian study on the return on investment and impact of workplace wellness programs.

Lori Casselman, assistant vice-president, health and productivity with Sun Life Financial.

Get a PDF of this article, and other coverage from the Healthy Outcomes Conference.

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