1 June 2012Life

The economies of a healthy workforce

During tough economic times, it’s hard to think about investing in additional programmes for your staff. However, by doing so, you can actually cut back on rising expenditures while at the same time investing in the health and wellbeing of your staff.

"Health costs represent  percent of Bermuda's GDP (the second highest all industriaized countries) and are growing at an average rate of 9.5 percent."

Health care expenditure in Bermuda surpassed $628.5 million in 2010, according to statistics from the Bermuda Health Council (BHeC). That’s $9,734 per resident. This cost now represents 11 percent of the nation’s GDP (the second highest of all industrialised countries) and isgrowing at an average rate of 9.5 percent per year, according to BHeC statistics. At this rate, health care costs are projected to be more than $1 billion by 2017. These costs are met primarily through compulsory insurance for employed persons and their spouses mandated by the Island’s Health Insurance Act.

Spending on health care must be contained to prevent threatening other areas of economic development. The good news is the majority of health spending is potentially avoidable. Diseases such as heartdisease, cancer and diabetes now place the greatest strain on the system’s capacity. In Bermuda, 77 percent of all deaths in 2008 were due to ‘lifestyle’ diseases such as heart disease (47 percent), cancer (25 percent), and diabetes (5 percent), according to the BHeC. Every day, new research points to a sedentary lifestyle and poor nutritional habits as the culprits. With a population that is 67 percent overweight or obese, Bermuda will continue to see an increase in disease and related expenditures if this issue is not addressed.

Companies who take responsibility, along with their employees, for good health and preventive care, can reduce the need for expensive medical interventions. Employees who are considered to be high-risk for certain health conditions are expected to account for 25 percent of total medical costs, according to a report entitled The Relationship between Modifiable Risk Factors and Group-Level Health Care Expenditures published in The Science of Health Promotion. Exacerbating the impact, research indicates that there is a direct relationship between modifiable lifestyle risk factors and reduced worker productivity. In fact, the costto employers in lost productivity due to poor employee health may be substantially more than direct medical and disability costs.

Workplace ‘wellness’ programmes are proved to improve employee health, productivity and morale, while at the same time decreasing health costs. A wellness programme may be as simple as an in-office yoga class, or as comprehensive as full fitness assessments and targeted health interventions.

Starting a wellness programme may seem daunting, but there are steps you can take to begin promoting a healthier company.

Get executive level buy-in

Having a champion at the executive level goes a long way towards creating a culture of wellness. A wellness programme is sometimes viewed as an added benefit as opposed to an essential one. The responsibility often falls to the human resources manager who, with an already extensive list of tasks, adds it to the ‘nice to have’ pile. Executive level backing will ensure that healthy employees remain a company priority.

Look at your claims experience

It’s good to know your starting point so you can set goals for improvement. Ask your medical insurance account manager for your medical claims experience. By looking at these data, you will be able to plan the focus of your company’s health promotion programme.

Create a wellness team

Share responsibility for the programme and ensure it is reaching the right people by establishing a diverse committee. Include human resources, marketing, management and business unit representatives. This committee should meet at least monthly to exchange ideas and provide feedback so that the programme may be monitored and modified as required.

Raise awareness

An effective way to change behaviour is to raise awareness of employees’ personal health status. Employees may have their glucose and cholesterol levels checked annually, but they may not know what these numbers mean. An on-site health fair for staff to have their overall health assessed will help in getting your wellness programme on track. Colonial Medical Insurance (CMI), for example, offers a comprehensive report and an overall ‘body age score’ to give employees a starting point. This assessment can help catch people at risk of developing serious diseases and may even identify cases of diabetes and/or heart disease.

Select the right interventions

Performing surveys and engaging with staff will provide a cultural assessment of your company and assist in identifying appropriate health-related activities. Health interventions need not be expensive. No budget for gym memberships? Coordinate group walks at lunchtime and encourage using the stairs instead of the elevator. Having a speaker at a healthy ‘lunch and learn’ session may get important messages across to staff with regards to nutrition.

Create some healthy competition using incentives

CMI participates in a virtual ‘walk-around-the-world’ pedometer challenge each year and has seen numerous benefits in terms of improved morale, health and camaraderie among employees. Encourage staff to take part in health-related charity and sporting events to get them moving and enhance team-building.

Jacqueline Teunissen is corporate wellness director at Colonial Medical Insurance. She can be contacted at: