The Canadian Source Of Employee Pension Fund Investment And Benefits Plan Management


Health Impacts Timing Of Retirement

woman riding bicycleSun Life’s ‘2014 Canadian Health Index’ shows that seven of 10 Canadian employees are unable to retire when they plan to with the number one reason being health or medical reasons. Among those with health issues, four out of five do not retire as planned or expected. Many employees have to leave abruptly due to a health condition. Others may work longer, but in poorer or failing health. These trends can have a serious impact on productivity, engagement, claims, and absences. All of this means “employers must take notice and invest in keeping employees physically and mentally healthy and engaged at work,” says Jennifer Elia, assistant vice-president, health and wellness, at Sun Life Financial. “It’s important to recognize health is a critical, but often overlooked, part of achieving retirement goals.”

Employers have an important role to play in helping Canadians live healthier and retire on their terms. Supporting employees in their planning for the future means not only helping them to save money, but encouraging them to live healthier.

Question Related To Longevity

This year marked the fifth year that Sun Life has prepared the index. While there is a core series of questions, each year questions are added which focus on more specific areas. The focus for this year was around what prevents Canadians from retiring according to their plans and this is the first time that a question related to longevity was asked.

“The relationship between the health index findings and the health and wellness focus that Sun Life group benefits has is a very concrete one,” says Elia. “Basically, the health index points to the thoughts and attitudes, concerns, and worries that Canadians have related to health. We had some surprising findings come out of the study and ones that point to a really compelling case for health and wellness programs in the workplace.”

The health index revealed that health is the number one cause of Canadians not retiring according to their plans and it could be in either direction. The risk of chronic or degenerative conditions and serious health events increases with age. Many chronic conditions and health events – including depression, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke – can be prevented or controlled with lifestyle modifications and other strategies. These can force some Canadians to stop working early and there is an impact to their retirement planning. The opposite could also happen. Other Canadians are unable to retire because they actually have to continue working longer to pay for health related expenses or because they are concerned about their financial security in retirement. This creates the situation where sick employees are working longer with a potential impact on their performance and productivity.

However, reducing the incidence or severity of these chronic conditions is also of value to employers that want to keep employees on the job and productive longer. Here, there is a mutual benefit. “From an employer perspective, you want your employees to be healthy and productive while they are at work. We know that healthy employees are good for business. There is a really nice interplay here when employees and employers have shared objectives, when it comes to health,” says Elia.

Wellness is increasingly a focus for workplaces. The ‘2013 Sun Life Buffett Wellness Survey’ showed more than 90 per cent of employers have some kind of wellness program in the workplace. “Unfortunately, most (around 87 per cent) do not do any measurement. When I say that employers, as a best practice, are looking to take a more strategic approach, it means getting a feel for the health of your organization through measurement on the front end. You can then use the insights to design and implement targeted programs that prevent or reduce the impact of chronic disease.”

Targeting Older Workers

Employers are increasingly looking to design programs targeting older workers. Rather than a broad brush approach to wellness programs in the workplace, they are looking to get more focused. Many employers are more sophisticated in their understanding of chronic disease and the impact that it is having in their workplace. As a result, they are keen to adopt a more strategic approach.

One huge gap can be what employers consider a wellness program. While over 90 per cent of employers have wellness initiatives in place, 87 per cent do not measure the health status of the majority of their employees, leaving many unaware of the risks they may be facing. “Some will say they have a wellness program because they do ergonomic assessments or offer flu clinics,” says Elia. “While these are great and very supportive, they are not strategic. A strategic program would, for example, recognize the impact that chronic disease is having as a workforce ages. Then we can get into program design that starts with assessing their population. They would look at doing that through a health risk assessment – a standard, self-reported approach to identify the health risks employees are facing. Those that want to do something a little more advanced could do screening clinics. The screening clinics will take a number of metrics around predispositions for diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic conditions” The most comprehensive programs begin with screening clinics and then offer some targeted interventions and follow-up clinics. This is where, hopefully, “we would start to see improvement in the health risk factors that are impacting costs and other business drivers.”

The good news is that the majority of the chronic conditions that are driving those costs – mental health, depression, diabetes, heart disease, stroke – can be prevented and, if they are not prevented, they can be controlled with lifestyle changes. And the investment in wellness does not compare to “where you start to really face the costs,” she says. Consider the financial impact of absent employees, disability claims experience, and replacing seasoned workers who often have the expertise and the knowledge that needs to be transferring down.”

For smaller employers, it may be as simple as helping them find the resources that employees need. “With a smaller population, because of privacy concerns, employers cannot get into significant amounts of data analysis and reporting, but they can offer programs that support employees to address their health issues. And, there is so much available in terms of community support and in the public health system. People are not always aware of what is out there,” she says.

Privacy Concerns

Privacy concerns are often cited as a reason to not collect and analyze data on employee health. Elia feels that “in Canada, we are accountable to become leaders in leveraging the data to drive wellness forward, while meeting privacy requirements. Our goal is to bring Canadians the solutions they want and need, and measure the results. We are not there. Most of the data analysis that we are doing is at an aggregate level with plan sponsors. When it comes to individual tracking, we have a ways to go and, certainly, it is on our radar to push the envelope on that.”

However, small steps are being taken. One example is how Sun Life provides biometric screening clinics for plan sponsors who wish to bring that service to the workplace. “As a sidebar, the screening clinics offer that teachable moment. We do have situations where workplace screening clinics prevented a serious health event because someone was not aware that they were pre-diabetic or they were on the verge of a heart attack. We have had employees taken by ambulance to the hospital from the clinic. These examples make it easy to show the value of screening when you think about the potential to save a life or guide someone to get the support they need. There are some really positive benefits, both qualitative and quantitative, for doing the screening clinics.”

However, it also an opportunity to deal with the privacy piece. Employees taking advantage of these screening clinics always consent to participate in the clinics. It’s possible to add another layer of consent permitting the wellness provider, not the employer, to follow up with the employee to offer targeted resources and programming related to the health risks that are identified. “It is very much an active consent. They have to say ‘yes, I am comfortable with that kind of follow-up’ and they could just as easily leave that box unchecked. However, the majority of people tick the box. Canadians are telling us they want this kind of support,” she says. “It is easy to get the buy-in when we are really laying it out that the reason for taking these steps is to support the employee’s health objectives.”

$251 in Savings Per Employee

Initial data from the a ‘Sun Life Ivey ROI Study’ shows that wellness programs save about 1.5 to 1.7 days in absenteeism per worker over 12 months or an estimated $251 per employee per year in savings. For the greatest impact, employers must take a strategic approach to wellness that is based on data and insights. By understanding and assessing the health issues present in the workplace, employers can develop a targeted plan with clear and measurable objectives and outcomes. Employees need and expect support from their employer. By giving employees tools, resources, and programs that focus on prevention, support, and healthy lifestyles, employers can build and develop a culture of health (physical, psychological, social) and help reduce the impact of chronic conditions on their workplace.

Benefits and Pensions Monitor Staff

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