The demands of life and work can get in the way of taking care of our personal health. Unfortunately, delaying preventive care could mean that we risk missing a diagnosis that could have been avoided or more easily treated if caught earlier.
A serious illness not only disrupts personal life, it can also cause significant upheaval in the workplace due to absenteeism, additional strain on co-workers, and decreased morale.
Proactive employers are recognizing the importance of health and wellbeing, shifting their thinking from health as an individual responsibility to a business responsibility. Organizations can do so by creating a culture of health and wellbeing that supports employees, equipping them with what they need to be proactive in physical and mental health.
Alleviating stress on a burdened healthcare system.
Preventive care helps doctors detect potential health issues before they become serious—sometimes staving off disease completely. However, due to events of the past few years, many Canadians put off routine preventive care such as immunizations, cancer screening, and mental health care.
Today, with the health system struggling under the weight of enormous backlogs, delays in community and hospital care, and a shortage of health professionals, a growing number of people are presenting in more advanced stages of illness.
Dr. Dominik Nowak, family physician and chief medical advisor at TELUS, is seeing the true impact of delayed care in his own practice. “Because of delayed care and a health system under pressure, we’re finding cancers and other health problems that are much more serious and harder to treat,” says Dr. Nowak. “That also applies to mental health. Early intervention means recognizing when mental health or substance use starts being an issue, and putting the right supports in place to change course before the problem gets worse.”
He likens the importance of preventive care to how we might respond to people getting stuck in a river current. “Imagine a flooding river where the current is so strong that it’s injuring people and causing chaos downstream. Right now, our health system is focused on rescuing the people caught in the river’s current. Preventive care can help by building a dam. If we intervene upstream, we prevent people from falling into the river, and we can decrease the pressure on responders downstream.”
The true cost of chronic illness.
Investing in employee health is not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. Numbers published by the Public Health Agency of Canada showed almost half of Canadians have at least one of the top 10 chronic conditions. These conditions include diabetes, heart disease, mental illness, cancer, lung disease, and more.
Between 2016 and 2018, private plan drug costs increased by 3.5% per year with chronic disease responsible for 67% of costs in the private drug cost space. Yet 80% of health has as much to do with social factors and lifestyle, including access to affordable and nutritious food, social connections and safety nets, or health behaviours such as smoking, alcohol and exercise.
A healthy workforce is a healthy company.
Considering that some people spend approximately one-third of their lives at work, employers have a fundamental responsibility to promote the health of their employees. Proactive employers are moving from viewing health on an individual level to recognizing that health is something that needs to be supported both in work teams as well as in the entire organization.
“Historically, employers would look at healthcare as an employee’s responsibility, but that’s outdated thinking,” says Dr. Nowak. “A modern approach to workplace health and wellbeing looks at total health, giving all employees the supports they need to protect their health.”
Everyone in the workplace is connected. If employee health isn’t protected early, the chances of a serious illness occurring later could increase—with repercussions that will ripple through the company. Employees who fall ill require expensive medical treatments and extended time off work, leading to $16.6 billion annually in costs for Canadian employers. Absenteeism keeps 500,000 employees away from work each week due to mental health issues, which could put a strain on other team members, and may impact processes, productivity and morale.
On the other hand, a healthy workforce is a healthy organization. Individuals with high levels of wellbeing are able to address normal stresses, work productively, realize their highest potential, and more likely contribute to their communities. Healthy employees not only enjoy a better quality of life, they also benefit from having a lower risk of disease, illness and injury, better immune functioning, speedier recovery and increased longevity.1
Building a culture of wellbeing.
A total health benefits plan should include all variables that impact employee health, yet be flexible enough to be adaptable to everyone’s unique situation.
“Health can mean different things to different people,” emphasizes Dr. Nowak. “Employers must think in terms of what is holding people back—what are the barriers to good health? Maybe they have responsibilities outside of their work life such as caregiving and parenting. Perhaps, like millions of Canadians, they don’t have a family doctor. Are time and work pressures preventing them from accessing care when they need it? These considerations are important in evaluating how an organization can best weave health and wellbeing into their culture.”
Employers should also ensure the benefits program includes mechanisms that support employees to take proactive care of their health in these key areas (see resources on these health areas at the end of this article.):
- Cancer screening
- Staying up to date on vaccinations
- Heart and stroke health
- Mental health
- Social factors (social connection, food security, local supports)
- Health behaviours (smoking, alcohol, nutrition, exercise)
On-demand services such as TELUS Health Virtual Care offers 24/7 access to medical care and can help employees proactively integrate preventive care into their day-to-day lives. While Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) offers the flexibility to access mental health support through personalized therapeutic programs.
Flexible work arrangements, including working from home, enable employees to fit their professional lives around their health - and not the other way around. Flexwork and telework have increased in importance for employees, with 65% and 72% (respectively) of respondents rating them as essential.
Employee engagement is paramount to ensure the effectiveness of a workplace health and wellbeing program.
Digital tools such as TELUS Health Wellbeing engage, educate, and inspire employees to achieve their personal wellbeing goals and build lasting, healthy habits; where employees complete a Wellbeing Assessment to determine areas of their lifestyle that need improvement.
TELUS Health EAP provides mental healthcare, wellbeing resources, and financial and legal help for employees to help them find a work/life balance that includes primary care and mental health support.
“A workplace should be a healthy, safe and sustainable place where people gather and are able to be their very best,” says Dr. Nowak. “It’s about creating a culture that prioritizes health and inspires people to take care of themselves so they can be there for their team members, their families and their communities. When you have a healthy workplace with healthy people, everyone thrives—and so does your organization.