Over the last 20 years, we have seen the emergence of a major trend in North America: employee health and wellness are suffering. In Canada and the United States, there have been alarming increases of hypertension, diabetes and obesity. Between 1994 and 2005, the rates of arterial hypertension among Canadians increased by 77%, diabetes by 45% and obesity by 18%, affecting people of every age. Even more concerning is that hypertension rates among Canadians aged 35 to 49 rose 127% during the same period, and almost doubled among young people over the last 15 years (CBC News). The long-term effects of these issues will be dire; for the first time in decades, life expectancy has decreased in the United States, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published in December 2010.
Health care costs increasing
For employers, these factors should be worrisome, since research shows that employee health directly impacts work behaviour, attendance, on-the-job performance and, of course, health care costs. According to the 2010 Health Care Cost Survey by Towers Watson, employers are now paying 28% more for healthcare than they did just five years ago, and employees are paying 40% more.
A serious challenge faced by businesses today is a high turnover of qualified, motivated and loyal workers. Many employers are failing to support and sustain their best people and create trusting relationships with their employees. The evidence: according to a report by TLNT, 74% of workers are passive job seekers ready to consider a move. In today’s competitive markets, employers must find new ways to attract and retain the best and brightest talent. One way to do this is to offer employees an environment that promotes healthy and active lifestyles.
Root of the problem
“Seventy-five percent of health care costs result from unhealthy lifestyles,” writes Barbara Schaefer, senior vice-president, human resources for Union Pacific Corporation, in her article, “Long Train Running”. In health matters, factors such as smoking, physical inactivity and poor eating habits are responsible for the vast majority of health risks and their associated costs.
There is good news for employers, however. These leading causes of illness are largely preventable. A 2007 study of more than 200,000 employees, conducted by the University of Michigan, determined that 61% of employees have two or less health risks, 28% have a moderate risk (three to four risk factors) and only 11% have an elevated risk (five or more health risk factors). The study determined that reducing health risk factors could save an employer US$354 per employee, per year, for an organization of 1,973 employees. These are savings that can add up quickly.
High performance companies: health and wellness leaders
Businesses today are left with no choice but to create a healthy workplace culture if they want employees to perform to their best potential. High performance companies such as SAS, Wegmans Food Markets and Google have understood the profound connection between employee health, productivity and insurance costs. According to a report by the SHRM Foundation, “more than 75% of high-performing companies regularly measure health and wellness as a viable component of their overall risk management strategy.” A survey conducted by Towers Watson and the National Business Group on Health “found that 83% of companies have already revamped or expect to revamp their health care strategy within the next two years, up from 59% in 2009. This year, more employers (66%) plan to offer incentives for employees to complete a health risk appraisal, up from 61% in 2009. Also, 56% of employers now offer health coaches and 26% now offer on-site health centres.”