Skip to main content

If you're interested in increasing your company's profitability, consider setting up a wellness program for employees. Sure, that may involve an expenditure of time and money. But the best evidence is that an investment in wellness programs returns two to five times the cost to the bottom line. Focusing on wellness is one way of improving employee engagement, which is seen as a magic elixir for organizations.

Graham Lowe, an emeritus professor of sociology from the University of Alberta who now is a workplace consultant in Kelowna, B.C., says there is overwhelming evidence that healthy employees will be more productive and cost employers less in absenteeism and sickness costs. Pushing for wellness programs, he stresses, is "not just a values statement. The research backs it."

The return on investment of such programs is well documented, albeit primarily in the United States. For every dollar invested in wellness programs, companies save between $2 and $5 on health care benefit and sick leave payouts. Although health care funding is different in the United States, with many companies shouldering a higher burden, Mr. Lowe says it would appear the same returns are gained by Canadian companies investing in wellness, since they still have costs that can be reduced for long-term disability, extended medical coverage, and absenteeism. And, of course, there would be accompanying savings to the public health system.

He also believes it's vital that employers consider the connection between their existing wellness-promotion programs, which tend to run independently and are seen as just another minor human resources project, and employee engagement programs, which are considered part of the organization's strategic ventures. But wellness is interconnected with engagement – some of the obstacles to wellness, like bad bosses and a toxic work environment, are also critical concerns in igniting engagement. So wellness is also a strategic initiative and has to be seen in that light.

In a recent report, The Wellness Dividend, he suggests there are signs that more employers aspire to improve employee health and reduce health-related costs. But the reality is that most Canadian employers don't offer any wellness programs. Only about one in four large corporations have a comprehensive wellness strategy that addresses health risks and underlying causes of well being and productivity. In this effort, we lag behind our southern neighbour.

He observes that absenteeism has been rising since the 1990s in Canada, although this trend has levelled out in the past five years. That contrasts with the steady decline in lost-time work injuries over the past two decades, an issue that has drawn more attention. In an average week in 2011, 8.1 per cent of full-time workers missed work owing to their own illness/disability or for personal or family reasons (excluding maternity leave). Actual work time lost for personal reasons increased from the equivalent of 7.4 days per worker in 1997 to 9.3 days in 2011 – which amounts to over 100 million work days lost for all full-time employees.

Trying to tighten the screws on employees, with more rules about being away from work, doesn't pan out. He says you need to look instead at the root causes, such as stress in the workplace, personality conflicts and work-life balance, as well as encouraging more active lifestyles. Both stress and work-life imbalance keeps growing, fuelling absenteeism.

He consults for many Ontario hospitals and has seen clients reduce absenteeism costs by two, three, or four percentage points through a wellness initiative. "The cost savings of that are enormous. You not only have people present but also don't have to pay other employees to come in and fill in or for overtime costs," he said in the interview.

But he adds that absenteeism is the visible end of the iceberg. Below the surface is so-called presenteeism, and it could be the bigger threat. Presenteeism arises when somebody shows up to work but is not fully productive. They feel pressure to appear, either because of their colleagues or internal motivation, but they aren't really there. Colleagues sneezing and coughing at neighbouring desks during winter may come to mind, but far more prevalent are depression and other mental illnesses.

Presenteeism also results when employees experience work-life conflict or heavy workloads. One major study found more than 80 per cent of employees with high work-family conflict reported going to work when not well, significantly more than others in the study without such pressures. Employees with heavy workloads also feel compelled to be at work when not feeling well, determined to satisfy their clients, co-workers and bosses.

"Presenteeism ties into engagement. An engaged employee is fully present. Presenteeism refers to employees at the low end of the engagement scale," he said.

The temptation for companies when they consider wellness is to subsidize gym memberships, provide lunch-and-learn sessions on stress, and perhaps offer some Web-based health resources employees can access. But he says a comprehensive program is needed, ideally developed by employees themselves, that focuses on issues like balance, organizational culture, civility and respect, clear leadership and expectations, and workload management – some of the 13 workplace factors that are addressed in new national standards on psychological health and safety in the workplace. If those factors sound like strategic activities – indeed, similar to the elements of an engagement program – you get the point.

Want to do your own checkup on where your stress levels lie? Take the Globe Careers Your Life at Work Survey. Find out your Quality of Work Life Score and see what your risks are. You can also evaluate if you're at risk of suffering from depression.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter