Ivey invents an index to calculate the efficiency of wellness programs

By Alain Thériault | August 17 2016 10:30AM

Photo: Freepik

A study by Ivey Business School found that health and wellness programs at work can reduce absenteeism. The researchers compiled a wellness index and will soon release its five-year profitability figures.

After years of research, Ivey Business School at Western University, in London, Ontario is poised to publish a method of calculating return on investment in health and wellness programs. The challenge is formidable: convince employers with already slim margins to make a health investment that will generate savings only a few years down the road.

For now, the insurer has created a wellness index to raise awareness among its group insurance clients and their employees. It unveiled the index at the Rassemblement pour la santé et le mieux-être en entreprise, a business health and wellness gathering held in Montreal in April, organized by the Groupe entreprise en santé (GES). The insurer also presented the research results it had compiled since 2011.

In the first phase, the partners gathered data from 2011 to 2012. In the following phases, the Sun Life-Ivey Canadian Wellness Return on Investment (ROI) Study focused on physical health. The research continues. Its original base: a survey of over 800 participants distributed in six Canadian organizations, on 28 sites.

Reducing absenteeism

The study shows how health and wellness programs at work can reduce absenteeism. “Wellness programs can save about 1.5 to 1.7 days in absenteeism per employee over 12 months, or an estimated $251 per employee,” the researchers confirm. These results are based on the average range of days of absenteeism per employee per year established by Statistics Canada in 2011, at 4.7 to 11.2 days.

The early results of the Sun Life-Ivey study are impressive: 22% of participants report that they became physically active during the program, and 53% mentioned an increase in their level of physical activity. In addition, 23% of participants saw an increase in their energy level, 51% an improvement in their diet, and 59% say they drink more water. The respondents also reported improved communication with others (15%), more restful sleep (14%) and better stress management (16%), says principal researcher of the study, associate professor of strategy and organization at Western University, Michael Rouse.

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Rouse cited the results of the study by the World Health Organization, which links 31% of deaths around the world in 2012 to cardiovascular diseases. A 2005 study by Buttar et al. concludes that 80% of deaths traced to these illnesses could have been prevented by exercise, not smoking, and maintaining a healthy diet and body weight.

The Ivey researchers found that 39.5% of employees ignored at least one of the risk factors for cardiovascular disease. They were less likely to engage in the recommended level of physical activity, and tend to consume fewer than three portions of fruit and vegetables daily. They were also more likely to report weekly fast food consumption. What’s more, the results pointed to a lack of awareness of cholesterol levels.        

Index spurs improvement

Based on the wellness index, the study leaders produced an improvement curve for health in business. “The study gave us the opportunity to establish a Canadian benchmark for evaluating the return on investment (ROI) in worksite wellness programs,” says Jennifer Elia, AVP Health and Wellness at Sun Life, who spoke at the conference.

The index reflects five factors: workplace culture and engagement forms a block that accounts for 44% of the index; stress represents 22%; nutrition 11%; alcohol and tobacco 11%; and physical activity 11%.

Applied to all treatment groups, the index points to a marked improvement in several areas after the tests. Using the pretest period as the starting point (0), the index shows that the level of physical activity improved by 25.6%. Wellness at work was up 6.8%. “It takes time for a wellness program to generate positive effects. It usually takes from five to six years and then it reaches a plateau on the curve. And we had only two years! That’s why we were really impressed by those results,” Elia commented.

The stumbling blocks

Despite these positive results, the study also found resistance. The barriers that prevent employees from living a healthy lifestyle include not enough time (83% at the start of the study and 81% at the end), family and personal requirements (67% at the start of the study and 68% at the end), and a lack of energy (71% at the start of the study and 68% at the end). The most noticeable evolution concerns lack of knowledge. Cited by 38% of respondents at the start of the study, it fell to 29% by the end.

Rouse says much work needs to be done on the data gathered. In the next steps, the researchers will develop a way to measure the return on capital invested.

Over two years, this return on capital is already translated by greater efficiency and lower absenteeism, the researchers note. Their ambition is to develop a model that will let them predict the five-year return on a wellness program.

There are still many results to come, mainly in fall 2016 and in Q1 2017, Jennifer Elia points out. “ROI is only a part of the story. We have to take into account the business value of a wellness program,” she adds. In other Sun Life findings, 70% of participants who visited a clinic said they reduced their risk in at least one area of health, and 80% of respondents to another survey said they planned to change their lifestyle.

Second phase of the study

The second phase of the study led by the Ivey School of Business lasted from 2013 to 2015. The sample was divided into subgroups: one treatment group and two control groups.

Members of the treatment group completed a wellness survey, attended a cardiovascular screening clinic, received one-on-one coaching, participated in education sessions and lifestyle modification programs and could visit wellness websites. The control categories were divided between group 1 (wellness survey only), and group 2 (survey and cardiovascular screening clinic).

Lead researcher, Western University professor Michael Rouse, claims that the sample is intended to represent the whole Canadian population. However, Alberta appears to be overweighted relative to its population. Its sample includes 244 participants, versus 193 for Ontario, 167 for British Columbia and 145 for Quebec. 57 participants come from the other provinces.