What are the top chronic diseases in the workplace?

More than half (54 per cent) of Canadian workers reported having at least one chronic disease or condition, according to the 2019 Sanofi Canada health-care survey.

The five most common issues were mental illness, hypertension, high cholesterol, arthritis and diabetes. Nearly half (42 per cent) of respondents also reported having chronic pain, describing it as pain that never really goes away, lasts for a few months or flares up from time to time. This number increases to 71 per cent among those with arthritis.

The portion of chronic sufferers increased among older workers, with 69 per cent of those aged 55 to 64 saying they suffer from a chronic disease or condition. As well, 38 per cent of plan members noted their benefits coverage includes care for a spouse or dependant with a chronic disease or condition.

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But the reality for plan members doesn’t quite match up with plan sponsors’ responses. The 2019 survey found plan sponsors thought 39 per cent of their workforce suffer from some form of chronic problem, up from 29 per cent in 2018.

Public sector employers have a more accurate estimate, at 51 per cent, followed by employers with a staff of 500 or more, who said 44 per cent of their workforce suffers from a chronic disease. Plan sponsors that receive claims analysis estimated that number at 40 per cent.“The gap between plan members and plan sponsors is closing, but it’s still a big gap,” said John McGrath, an advisor at ZLC Financial and member of the survey’s advisory. “We need to take awareness of chronic disease to the next level by connecting the dots between lost productivity, absenteeism, the cost of the drugs, disability, etc. But we don’t just need more reporting — we also need to come up with different solutions.”

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As far as managing these conditions, 77 per cent of plan members with a chronic problem said they take at least one medication on a regular basis, compared with 27 per cent among those who don’t have a chronic issue. Almost a third (31 per cent) of members with chronic conditions said they take three or more medications regularly, whereas that’s only true of four per cent of members without a condition.

More than half (55 per cent) of plan members with chronic problems said they feel they’re managing well on a day-to-day basis, while 37 per cent said they’re managing somewhat well.

To better manage their conditions, plan members said they’d like to exercise more (60 per cent), eat more healthy foods (49 per cent) and get enough sleep (43 per cent). Sleep was especially important to younger plan members, aged from 18 to 34, with 44 per cent stating it’s important, compared with 36 per cent of those aged 55 to 64. Exercise was more important to the older cohort, with 71 per cent saying they want to do more.

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“As an industry, we can do a better job with business casing around chronic disease management programs,” said Jonathan Tafler, senior director of employer health solutions at Shoppers Drug Mart and an advisory board member. “We talk about the need for an ROI, but is that really the case when a lot of benefits paid for today do not have a clear ROI? We need to shift to prevention now, because our current path — where too many people with chronic diseases get sicker, need more drugs and finally can’t work anymore — is not sustainable.”

Plan members also noted they want more support in dealing with their conditions. The majority (89 per cent) of those with chronic pain said they want more information about ways to manage it. Plan sponsors echoed this sentiment, with 82 per cent stating they want their health benefits plan to do more to support people with chronic issues, up from 79 per cent last year.

Specifically, 87 per cent of plan sponsors said they’d like their insurer or benefits advisor to provide methods to better support chronic sufferers. However, a majority (60 per cent) of plan sponsors indicated cost as a barrier, along with a lack of options from insurers (27 per cent). Notably, Quebec plan sponsors were less concerned with cost, at 47 per cent.

“Many different initiatives and approaches are becoming available in chronic disease management,” said Carlee Bartholomew, sales director for Eastern Canada for group benefits at RBC Insurance and an advisory board member. “But at the end of the day, it comes down to how do we get the plan members on board, keeping in mind that stigma could be a big issue. We’re going to need new and different approaches for participation, as well.”

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