As the proportion of Canadians living with one or more chronic disease continues to rise, plan sponsors have the opportunity to provide specific solutions to some of the most common conditions in their employee population, said Karen Callaghan, senior director of chronic disease education and patient support at Novo Nordisk, during Benefits Canada‘s 2023 Healthy Outcomes Conference in October.

While employers are doing more than ever before to support employees’ mental and physical health, the rates of chronic diseases continue to rise significantly. According to Statistics Canada, among the 45 per cent of Canadians with more than one major chronic disease, 64.7 per cent have obesity, 19.5 per cent have arthritis, and 17.7 per cent have hypertension. In addition, cancer, diabetes and heart disease are among the other common chronic illnesses.

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“We’re seeing rises in short-term disability, absenteeism [and] presenteeism, despite having the best benefits packages I’ve ever seen in the companies that I’ve been working with.”

Many employers with good intentions are trying to provide support for every possible chronic condition rather than focusing in on the “pain points” in their organizations, said Callaghan, noting people with obesity, as one example, are at a much higher risk for major depression, sleep apnea and type 2 diabetes.

These comorbidities have knock-on effects for productivity and presenteeism, as well as indirect costs to employers, she noted, including higher risk among people with obesity of filing for short-term disability claims.

“The most important point I want to make here is this condition is can be really difficult to manage. . . . Generally, people have a lot of internal biases and judgment [and can think], ‘It’s their fault.’ But it definitely isn’t that — there are genetic, biological and environmental reasons that can contribute to weight gain. If we manage people’s weight effectively, we can have an impact on all those drivers [and] conditions that may be driving costs up.”

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Obesity and other chronic conditions can often be treated with a combination of medical nutrition therapy, physical activity, cognitive behavioural therapy and medications, said Callaghan. However, while benefits plans include many types of coverage that can help, people often don’t know where to start.

In addition, she highlighted some external obesity management supports that employers can leverage. “What if our benefits providers could say, ‘If this is what you’re dealing with, here are some resources you can use?’ Some of it can be cost-shared because if [the programs] have dietitians then they can use their dietitian benefits.”

Proper support can also help employees reach a place when they can self-manage their conditions. “If we self-manage, we’re more likely to stay productive, healthy, enjoy our work and, when we get into trouble, there’s a place we can go back to that cares about us.”

Read more coverage of the 2023 Healthy Outcomes Conference.