TORONTO, November 13, 2013 — According to the 2013/2014 Staying@Work Survey, conducted by global professional services firm Towers Watson (NYSE, NASDAQ: TW), the majority (76%) of Canadian organizations are planning to increase their support for workforce health programs over the next two years.  This commitment, similar to other countries in the survey, is seen as a way to keep workers healthier and improve workplace productivity.

“The survey indicates that over the next few years we will continue to see organizations commit both financial and human resources to transform their current programs from a patchwork of wellness tactics into a more cohesive, integrated strategy,” said Wendy Poirier, Towers Watson’s Canadian Health and Group Benefits Leader. “A focus on expanding and developing a culture of health in the workplace will be critical to optimizing the return on investment.”

New Offerings and Vendors Shift Focus to Prevention and Sustainable Behaviour Change

Canadian employers continue to offer basic health awareness and prevention services. Forty-five percent offer health risk assessments, close to 40% offer biometric screenings, vaccination programs are provided by approximately 80% of respondents and web-based health information tools are available at 65% of participating organizations.  Some have started to expand from these traditional services to implement newer approaches.

Eleven percent have expanded access to on-site health services (such as a physician or dietitian), 20% are offering additional access to behavioural health services through virtual sessions, and 18% are promoting the use of mobile applications to complement health promotion programs.

In addition to adding newer health services, the survey also shows that Canadian employers are turning to specialty vendors to deliver services traditionally provided by health insurers or in-house teams.  Forty-six percent of survey respondents reported the use of specialty vendors for health risk assessments, 63% for biometric screenings and 28% for disability management.  

Low Employee Participation Still a Concern

Despite expanding the array of wellness activities offered, employers have seen relatively small upticks in participation rates for most activities.  According to the 2013/2014 survey, about 1 in 4 employees is participating in health risk assessments and biometric screenings — just marginally higher than the participation rates reported in the 2011/2012 survey. 

The top two barriers to employee participation, according to survey respondents, are lack of employee engagement in their own health and well-being and lack of adequate budget or staff to support effective programs.

“If employee engagement in healthy activities is the key objective, most Canadian companies have not yet achieved that goal,” said Keri Alletson, a Senior Health and Group Benefits Consultant and a member of the global research team at Towers Watson.  “If employers want to increase participation — or, even better, realize an improvement in both physical and mental health — more work is required to understand, measure and target the root causes of low participation rates.”

The root causes of low participation rates may be directly linked to the top three health risks cited by respondents — stress (83%), lack of physical activity (49%), and obesity (41%).  “Employees juggling heavy workloads and complex lives may simply not have the energy or the drive to fully understand and engage in workplace health and wellness activities,” said Alletson. “It appears that companies that enable their staff to work more manageable hours and address inadequate staffing, unclear job expectations and other aspects of the workplace, may actually see better outcomes, both in terms of individual health and company productivity.”

Highly-effective Companies Recognize the Role of Workplace Culture in Workforce Health

The study analyzes the gaps between “high-effectiveness” and “low-effectiveness” companies to understand differences in approach and highlight differences in results.  The ongoing research suggests that high-effectiveness organizations take a broader view of health and productivity, focus on different metrics and build strategies to develop and sustain a workplace culture that supports workforce health.   

 “Employers recognize that good health is an important business issue and that poor health clearly affects workforce performance and drives up benefit costs,” Poirier added. “A formal strategy that includes health, well-being and worker effectiveness as core employment values is critical to getting the most out of a benefits program and, more important, to driving sustained healthy behaviours.”  

According to the survey, Canadian companies have some work to do.  While 43% of Canadian respondents are focused on workplace culture where employees are responsible for their health and understand its importance, only 10% report having a formal health strategy and just 13% report having effectively communicated that strategy.  It does appear, however, that change is on the horizon. Eighteen percent of respondents are planning to implement formal plans with defined goals, and an additional 25% are planning to communicate and deliver the value behind the strategy over the next three years.

About the Survey

The 2013/2014 Towers Watson Staying@Work Survey was fielded between May and July 2013 in North America, Latin America, Europe and Asia and completed by a total of 892 employers, including 114 in Canada and 199 in the U.S.  The respondents represent all major industry sectors.  About half of the respondents are multinationals. 

About Towers Watson

Towers Watson (NYSE, NASDAQ: TW) is a leading global professional services company that helps organizations improve performance through effective people, risk and financial management.  The company offers solutions in the areas of benefits, talent management, rewards, and risk and capital management.  Towers Watson has 14,000 associates around the world and is located on the web at