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Wellness Works!

Diane Thompson

 You may be sceptical.  Does it work?  Can a workplace wellness program actually result in a return on investment?  Can you really change your employees’ behaviour and overall health and wellness?

There are reasons to be sceptical.  The return on investment takes time and what will be the proof? 

What’s at stake?

  • Poor health habits and mental illness are taking an enormous toll.  Consider the following: 
  • The Conference Board of Canada estimates that for every employee who smokes, it costs up to $3,396 each year through increased absenteeism, decreased productivity, and higher insurance premiums, among other costs.
  • Experts estimate that 10 to 25% of all teenagers and 20 to 50% of all adults have a weight problem. It is known that obesity brings many health hazards with it, including heart attacks, strokes and diabetes with all of its complications. Obesity is a serious concern to all health care practitioners.
  • Disability-related absences from the workplace represent anywhere from 4% to 12% of payroll costs in Canada (Wilson, Joffe & Wilkerson, 2002)
  • Mental health claims (especially depression and anxiety) have overtaken cardiovascular disease as the fastest growing category of disability costs in Canada (Wilson, Joffe & Wilkerson, 2002)
  • 20% of Canadian workers experience a stress related illness every year (Statistics Canada, 2003)
  • It is estimated that 10% of the Canadian working population has a diagnosable mental illness (Dewa, Chau & Dermer; 2009)
  • Mental illness-related disability claims (short-term and long-term) account for up to one third of the workplace claims, equaling approximately 70% of workplace costs Lachmans-300x185and translating to 33 billion dollars to the Canadian economy on an annual basis (Sroujian, 2003)
  • An employee with a previous disability claim related to mental illness/disability is almost seven times more likely to have another disability claim related to that illness than someone with no previous disability episode related to mental illness (Dewa, Chau & Dermer, 2009).
  • Stress, according to Chrysalis Performance Inc.  Research, may contribute up to:
    • 19% of absenteeism cost
    • 40% of turnover cost
    • 55% if EAP costs
    • 30% of short term disability and long term disability costs
    • 60% workplace accidents
    • 10% of drug plan costs
    • 100% of stress related lawsuits (Burton, 2006)


  •  Substance abuse in Canada is estimated to be $39.8 billion, or $1,267 for every Canadian.  The Costs of Substance Abuse in Canada 2002 (pdf) study was released in April, 2006. The study revealed that:
    • Legal substances (tobacco and alcohol) account for 79.3% of the total cost of substance abuse; illegal drugs make up the remaining 20.7%
    • Tobacco accounts for $17 billion (42.7%)
    • Alcohol accounts for $14.6 billion (36.6%)
    • Illegal drugs account for $8.2 billion (20.7%)

Success in Action

Pfizer Canada won Canada's Award for Excellence in Healthy Workplace in 2009. The award from the National Quality Institute recognized Pfizer's formalizing and offering an official program, VIVA Health and Well-Being.  VIVA is based on illness prevention, awareness and employee support.  More than three-quarters of employees said the VIVA program adds value to their jobs, helps them reach their health goals, improves morale, keeps them energized and helps reduce stress.   The underlying philosophy at Pfizer is that it takes More Than Medication.

Some results reported by Canada Awards for Excellence recipients include:

  • 91% improvement in employee turnover
  • 215% increase in cost savings
  • 90% increase in customer satisfaction
  • 33% increase in employee satisfaction
  • 82% reduction in cycle time
  • 57% decrease in injuries

Effective is the Operative WordKnee-mri-280x281

Your wellness program needs to be well focused and well executed.  What this means is that your program needs to be targeted to the health concerns of your employees and to the initiatives they need and want.  Doing this allows you to effectively execute your program with frequent communication and broad employee buy-in.   An effective wellness program is one that results in a healthy return on investment for both your employees and your organization.


Given the stark statistics on the burden of illness and associated costs, it seems clear that the time has come to concentrate on preventable illnesses, estimated to be 70 per cent of the burden by the New England Journal of Medicine.   

In addition, the Parliament of Canada Senate Subcommittee Report on Population Health (pdf), states in the forward on page 1, "We must change our way of thinking...Passively waiting for illness and disease to simply not an option."   The report goes on to say that this change will need to engage all levels of government, business and communities. 

 Wellness initiatives and programs provide a viable option to reverse the trends.   Is it time to review your productivity and risks in light of these statistics?   Have you thought about how your performance might be improved and your costs reduced with a targeted wellness program?


Interesting article, Diane.  I certainly am not a sceptic, and believe the numbers are an indicator of the problem out there, although may be considered a cynic re. how organisations deal with the issue.  However, the difficulty in many cases is that senior management is focussed on immediate needs.  While they might not offically disagree with your statistics, in reality, they will likely react only to statistics that address what is happening now.

While my experience was more in the private sector and not government, I suspect the problem is the same.  Senior managers are afraid of losing control over their organizations.  So, they like to deal with a few numbers, and want those that show how well they are delivering their product, not how well their employees are working. Middle managers may understand the situation, but their messages and employee issue statistics fall on deaf ears if they do not address profits or the executive’s current hot topic.

Furthermore, because senior managers are often moved around so often, they often spend more time learning about what their organization is supposed to be doing, and not how its people do their jobs.

How does one overcome this?  Wellness programs such as NQI’s healthy workplace, if supported from the very top, would go a long way.  Ultimately, the solution may be better organized communications up and down so that senior managment can understand the effects of poor health anecdotally without looking only for statistics on profitability.

By Richard Dare on 2011/07/19

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Posted by Diane Thompson
Posted on June 17, 2011

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Categories: culture, hr & talent management, management, productivity, wellness