In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, employers will likely start to see more chronic diseases in their employee population and should consider proactive strategies for supporting workers’ overall health, said Peter Nord, chief medical officer at Medcan, during Benefits Canada’s 2023 Chronic Disease at Work conference in early February.

“Employees are looking around for not just a safe workplace; they’re looking now for a healthy workplace, really focusing on their wellness,” he said, noting this change in employees’ mindsets was accelerated by the pandemic.

After the initial wave of coronavirus-related deaths, largely in long-term care and other congregate settings, Nord said a new wave of worsened outcomes is underway, due to resource restrictions and interrupted care during the pandemic, such as people who have waited years to have surgeries rescheduled or are being diagnosed with diseases at later stages of progression. At the same time, people are coping with the mental-health impacts of the pandemic.

Read: 2022 Healthy Outcomes Conference: How is the pandemic changing plan sponsors’ mental-health strategies?

Plan sponsors will likely see both of these “waves” in their employee population, he said, noting the link between diabetes and the coronavirus appears to flow both ways; diabetes was identified as a risk factor for worse outcomes after contracting the virus and some emerging studies have indicated that some people are developing diabetes after having had the virus.

Also highlighting atherosclerotic cardiovascular diseases, Nord said people have a higher risk of developing these diseases for up to a year after they’ve had the coronavirus, according to new research study.

As society moves on from the acute phase of the pandemic, he suggested plan sponsors be on the lookout for employees coping with the mental-health toll of the past two years. This is likely to be more pronounced in people already living with chronic illnesses, he added, citing an International Journal of Physiology, Pathophysiology and Pharmacology study that found 23 per cent of people with chronic diseases reported experiencing a “significant psychological impact” from the pandemic, which was worsened if they were living alone or had pre-existing mental-health challenges.

Read: Editorial: Chronic disease, mental health in spotlight as pandemic surges on

“Thinking about anxiety, depression and stress, stress will obviously manifest in many ways. We tend to manage stress in different ways and our body reacts in different ways,” he said, such as by developing rashes, acid reflux and more. “As employers, we really do need to be thinking about that. And, if we are seeing some chronic illness at work, we can focus on that, but we also need to think, is there something behind that? Is there a distinct mental-health challenge that’s happening that’s triggering some of this chronic disease manifestation? There are many chronic conditions that have been triggered by stress, anxiety or depression.”

Nord suggested employers and people managers have their “antennas up” for employees who may not be doing well and try to intervene early by being supportive and “opening up that door for a conversation.”

While benefits plans and employee assistance programs can certainly be helpful to staff who are struggling, employers can be more proactive by harnessing their data, including surveys, health risk appraisals and claims data, he said, as well as designing custom programs to target specific health challenges in the workplace or boost overall employee heath and wellness.

These can include the home monitoring of blood pressure, wearables like Fitbits and even health apps that track sleep, exercise and stress levels. Nord said employers can use the anonymized, population-level data from these technologies to see how employees are doing and even send nudges to improve outcomes. “It’s not just monitoring. It’s actually doing something and looking at a way to constantly improve.”

Read: Survey finds health apps, digital devices growing in popularity

More exciting technologies are coming online in the next couple of years, such as wearables to target medication adherence, he added.

Nord also encouraged employers to consider health and wellness initiatives such as smoking cessation and exercise programs. Smoking cessation, he said, can have a near-immediate return on investment in terms of reducing presenteeism while also helping to prevent cases of emphysema and lung cancer.

In addition, in the wake of new guidance from the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction that now defines safe alcohol consumption as two standard drinks a week (down significantly from the previous 15 drinks per week for men and 10 for women), he suggested employers consider making alcohol education part of their health and wellness programs.

Read more coverage of the 2023 Chronic Disease at Work conference.