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Investment in employee health pays dividends: Studies show every year millions of dollars are lost to corporations due to incidental absenteeism. (Health Report).

Employee health and wellness, once viewed by employers as a personal issue, is now being recognized as an area of concern that employers have a vested interest in.

The institution of workplace wellness programs and health programs within a business or organization has the capacity to reduce absenteeism, improve worker satisfaction and morale and lower health-care costs, according to Mary Ann Diosi, public health nurse with the Sudbury and District Health Unit workplace wellness team.

A labour force survey conducted in 1997 by Statistics Canada revealed that an average of 7.4 days were missed by each full-time employee during a one-year period. This average translates into an annual loss of $1400 per employee, based on a company of 1000 employees with an average salary of $190 per day. Incidental absenteeism accumulates to a total loss of $1.4 million per year for a company this size.

"There is a lot of research out there to make the case to prove that there is a greater return for (the employer's) investment in workplace wellness," Diosi says. "It's more than just the dollar investment, it's the understanding employees need a happy healthy workplace."

While workplace wellness is not a new concept, only in recent years have businesses embraced the ideology that there is a positive return on an investment in employee health programs, she adds.

While it is a step in the right direction when a business promotes itself as a smoke-free workplace, workplace wellness in its entirety is multi-faceted and addresses physical activity levels, stress, nutrition, illness prevention and work-life balance issues, along with a number of other areas concerning health.

Workplace wellness programs are built on a holistic approach to health, with the understanding that wellness involves a healthy mind, body and spirit. Programs and policies can be individually tailored to suit the specific needs of an organization, reflective of the organization's wellness goals, Diosi notes.

According to a study conducted by the Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute, the majority of Canadian companies attribute increased productivity, improved morale, decreased absenteeism and improved health and well-being to workplace health promotion programs.

Considering the fact that most adults spend one-third to one-half of their waking hours at work, it makes sense to ensure health and wellness is extended into the workplace.

"Healthier, happier employees are more productive, which impacts the bottom line and in business, the bottom line is everything," says Brenda Stankiewicz, also a public health nurse with the wellness team.

The health needs of workers in Northern Ontario-based businesses are different from those found in southern Ontario-based businesses where large-scale corporations dominate the business scene. Ninety-seven per cent of businesses in the North are small- to medium-sized, says Diosi. Large businesses often have occupational health nurses on site to provide health promotion, whereas small businesses do not have that luxury, she notes. Northern Ontario also has a higher rate of smokers, and the physical activity levels are lower; all the more reason to invest in workplace wellness, she notes.

"One thing we try to do is to encourage (employers) to develop some kind of workplace committee," with representatives at all levels from senior management to union representatives to employees, Stankiewicz adds.

The Sudbury and District Health Unit established a workplace wellness team in 1998. While all health units are mandated by the province to extend public health education into the workplace, few have established a wellness team, she adds. The concept of workplace wellness is gathering momentum among the business population, she notes.

In 1999, when the Sudbury and District Health Unit first launched their workplace wellness newsletter, they had 195 businesses on their mailing list. Today 1,600 business in the Sudbury-Manitoulin district receive the newsletter.

In a detailed study conducted between 1990 and 1994 by the Conference Board of Canada in conjunction with Health Canada, 401 Canadian organizations were surveyed on a number of issues related to employee health and the rising cost of health care on employers.

The results of the survey were conclusive; Canadian employers are becoming increasingly cognizant of the need to address the rising costs of their employee and retiree health programs.

Of those surveyed, 87 per cent cited the cost of providing a supplemental health plan a plan which includes coverage for areas such as drug and dental benefits, fitness programs, health services and employee assistance programs - increased by 26 per cent between 1990 and 1994. Respondents attributed the increase in costs to three key areas: rising drug costs, dental costs and increased benefits usage by employees.

In response to the challenge of rising costs, forward-thinking businesses are implementing wellness programs that take a holistic approach to individual health.

Some employers have recognized the need for flexibility in the workplace, perhaps allowing more flexible working hours, to alleviate stressors which may be impacting work-life balance, says Stankiewicz.

"Management that has policies and keeps, them human understands you can't stick strictly to that policy just because it's written that way," Stankiewicz says. "Offering flexible (hours) for a person will help with work-life balance."

Technology, and work overload are other sources of stress for workers.

By providing employees with the tools they require to adapt to changing technologies, such as providing opportunities to upgrade skills, employers are building a culture that empowers workers and helps them adapt to change, Stankiewicz says.

Health units across northeastern Ontario offer workplace health education through a number of initiatives, some of which include: Workplace Health, a program which assists employees and employers develop customized workplace wellness programs; Taking Care of Business, one-day workshops, presentations or consultation on numerous health topics; and Shiftwork Like Clockwork, workshops and facilitator training addressing shiftwork issues.

Some initiatives also provide an opportunity to become involved in workplace health networks, or to be part of a steering committee to promote and provide workplace wellness activities.

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COPYRIGHT 2001 Laurentian Business Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Huhtala, Sari
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Geographic Code:1CONT
Date:Dec 1, 2001
Previous Article:Northern Numbers.
Next Article:Money lost to addictions: Over $3 billion in losses to Ontario companies annually. (Health).

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