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Sprout’s Martha Switzer co-authors article with TELUS, reviewing the merits of technology and social platforms to support lifestyle wellness and enable disease prevention.

Three questions we should be asking about workplace wellness

April 24, 2015

Martha Switzer
Co-Founder and Vice President Marketing,
Dr. Elaine Chin
Chief Wellness Officer,
TELUS Health




The value of wellness – adopting lifestyle choices that promote regular exercise and good nutrition and tackle unhealthy ones, such as smoking – is generally understood. No one will argue that workplace wellness programs are a bad idea or challenge that creating a workplace culture of wellness is beneficial for employees, their employers and, by extension, the Canadian healthcare system. After all, every hour in Canada, there will be 20 new diabetic patients, three people will die from a heart attack or stroke, and cancer is now on the risei .

In light of this, we have a responsibility to ask: are workplace wellness programs reaching their full potential? This article considers three tough questions Canadian employers should be asking as they increase their investments in wellness.

According to the 2014 Towers Watson Staying@Work survey report, more than 30% of Canadian multinationals have a workplace wellness strategy in place today and 40% plan to adopt one in the next one-to-two years. While workplace wellness programs are gaining momentum, at the same time, nearly 30% have no global strategy and no intention of adopting one. This begs the question: why are so many employers still not doing enough?



1. Why are so many employers still not doing enough?

While Canada’s top employers understand the value of wellness programs, even from a purely financial perspective, it is puzzling that workplace wellness laggards exist.

Research shows that companies with the most effective health and productivity programs experienced superior human capital and financial outcomes, with 11% higher revenue per employee, 1.8 fewer days absent per employee per year, and 28% higher shareholder returnsii. Furthermore, American research conducted by Harvard University found that workplace wellness programs also delivered significant cost savings for employers. For every $1.00 spent on wellness programs, medical costs fall by about $3.27 and absenteeism costs fall by about $2.73iii.

While the financial benefits are important, workplace wellness programs actually have the potential to drive a far more important return: disease prevention. Towers Watson’s 2013 Staying@Work Survey results show that U.S. employers are taking to heart the lessons that ‘more’ health programs without an articulated strategy may not be an effective approach to induce behavior change. Rather, well-designed programs can drive prevention of addressable health issues that are plaguing Canadians and straining the over-burdened healthcare system.


What Canada’s top 100 employers know about wellness programs:

• Boosts employee engagement by 96%
• Improves productivity by 76%
• Reduces drug benefit and disability costs by 54%

Source: Medisys healthcare results 2013


2. Are wellness programs tackling game-changing behavior?

There is an obesity epidemic in Canada and globally. If the prevalence of obesity continues on its current trajectory, almost half of the world’s adult population will be overweight or obese by 2030. Today’s children could well be the first generation to die before their parents, not because of war and famine, but due to complications of their obesity. Obesity is the precursor to diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer and is currently responsible for about 5% of all deaths worldwideiv.

The promising piece of news is that the rising rates of chronic diseases can be improved. The key lies in prevention, which is achieved by adopting wellness-focused behaviors. Individual accountability is a critical component. At the same time, there is an important opportunity for wellness programs in the workplace to impact game-changing behaviour. To do so, these programs need to progress beyond the tactical and find ways to catch and intervene with the warning signs of the three big killers: heart attack, stroke, and cancer.

Detecting suboptimal lifestyles with biomarkers

We live in an era of lifestyle monitors and apps, which are bountiful and growing exponentially in the consumer marketplace. These applications provide important information such as activity levels, dietary habits, sleep quantity and quality. An individual’s behaviour will affect their metabolism as measured with biomarkers.


 …workplace wellness programs actually have the potential to drive a far more important return: disease prevention.


To understand how to fine tune wellness programs, let’s consider the screening of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Most check-ups and biomarker-based wellness programs take into account a fasting blood sugar and cholesterol. These are important markers but if they are elevated, it is already too late in the disease continuum to have preventative impact. More predictive precursors to cardiometabolic issues can be identified with Hemoglobin A1C (sugar coating of red cells to determine long term blood sugar control) and insulin markers. The traditional system uses HgbA1C only when someone is already diabetic to monitor drug treatment effectiveness. Again, it’s late in the disease continuum.

The American Diabetes Association is now advocating HgbA1C as a better screen than fasting blood sugarv. Insulin screening, which is not generally used, is another predictive biomarker that can be employed as it can alert an individual that they are at risk of becoming diabetic (insulin resistancevi) and enable preventative action that can reverse potential damage.

If wellness programs can access more information about an individual’s lifestyle and proactive biomarkers, this opens the door to for individual’s to enact proactive lifestyle changes – better nutrition, less sugar, salt and fat, increased levels of activity and better sleep – that can help reverse their disease risk factors.

3. Are we making it easy and fun for employees to engage with wellness?

Behavioural change is difficult. Scientific research shows that more permanent lifestyle changes require at least three months of maintaining new habitsvii. Individual accountability is key and a wellness coach and tools to support the journey and provide wellness goals and plans are important for success.


Hallmarks of successful wellness programs:

• Promote wellness from the top. All levels of leadership actively support wellness and engagement in health is part of the company’s business priorities and linked to overall business value.

• Create a network of champions. Social platforms or specific tools can connect people to one another for peer-to-peer motivation, engagement and fun.

• Understand employee needs. Health and productivity is defined broadly to include physical, psychological and emotional aspects of health.


As social beings, challenging our friends and family to change lifestyles together will increase the likelihood for more sustainable behaviour change. Wellness programs can help drive employee participation and engagement by enabling employees to stay accountable to themselves and their colleagues. Technology and tools can make a significant difference in wellness program adoption. Having a way to easily track everyday activities while using social features and gamification can keep employees motivated, support behavior change and lead to real success. At the same time it is equally important to provide employers with the means to measure the impact wellness initiatives are having on their business.

The bottom line

It’s time to stop over simplifying wellness. The only way to improve the physical and mental well-being of individuals is to adopt comprehensive wellness models to change behaviour. Dr. BJ Fogg from the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University offers up a model that suggests that behaviour change will require motivation and abilityviii. But most importantly it requires a trigger. Biometric testing can be that trigger. When that data is tracked and interpreted by a health coach it creates actionable information, and social support reinforces motivation.

More of the same traditional wellness offerings – blood pressure clinics, smoking cessation programs or lunch and learn sessions – are not effective in stemming the conditions which lead to chronic diseases. An impactful wellness program must deliver sustainable improved lifestyle changes that are triggered with personalized biometrics.

i Canadian Diabetes Association, Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation and Canadian Cancer Society websites
ii TowersWatson,“Staying@Work”, 2009
iii Harvard University: Health Affairs. “Workplace Wellness Programs Can Generate Savings”, February 2010
iv McKinsey Global Institute discussion paper: Overcoming Obesity, November 2014
v American Diabetes Association
vi National Diabetes Information Clearing House
vii Huff Post Healthy Living, April 10, 2015
viii behaviormodel.org

Sprout and TELUS partner

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