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Dissecting the 2011 Sun Life Buffett Wellness Survey

Sun Life Financial recently released the results of the latest Buffett National Wellness Survey, a yearly analysis of worksite wellness in Canada. The 2011 survey results are a mixed bag of good and bad news, but one thing is for certain: the conclusions need to be taken with a grain of salt.

Statistics derived from surveys should always be analyzed with a certain degree of apprehension because there are many different factors that come into play when surveying groups—everything from sample size to the way questions are phrased, to the motivations and opinions of the respondents themselves. This is not to say that survey results are unfounded; it simply means that it’s important to know the process behind a survey to truly understand the results. In the case of the 2011 Sun Life Buffett Wellness Survey, there are a few important things that readers must be aware of if they want to have a complete understanding of the results.

What you may not realize

The first thing that is somewhat ambiguous about the survey is who the respondents are. The national sample consisted of 677 Canadian employers, representing public, private and non-profit organizations ranging in size from 100 employees to those with more than 2,500 employees. This sample size resulted from a total of 1,300 employers that were contacted to take part in the survey. What’s critical to know is that the respondents were not company owners or executives; the majority were employees working in HR departments—skewing the results to reflect the opinions of HR staff, rather than executives. When asked about the motivation for offering wellness initiatives, the top responses were “improve employee health” (41%) and “organizational culture” (22%). If CEOs were posed the same question, “employee retention,” “benefits cost containment” and “productivity” would likely have claimed higher percentages. In fact, “requested by management” was offered as a potential motivator, but only 2% selected it as a response. This does not instil much faith in regards to CEO adoption of wellness initiatives.

People without the time to go over the full report might read the key findings on the Sun Life website, where it says that “most organizations offer wellness programs (72%).” Indeed, 72% of survey respondents said they offer at least one wellness initiative, but any person devoted to the promotion of corporate wellness programs will agree that offering one or more “wellness initiatives” is quite different from offering a wellness program. The Sun Life page does acknowledge that 74% of organizations are not taking a strategic approach to employee wellness, but the way these key findings are presented on their website may lead some to believe that overall Canadian adoption of wellness programs is further along than it is in reality.

A problem with this survey is that many questions contain a certain amount of subjectivity—one of the issues being that the term “wellness program” was not clearly defined to respondents. This is frustrating to anyone promoting corporate wellness programs, because differentiating a well-executed, structured wellness program from the traditional approaches to employee health is a major challenge. When survey respondents are provided with “flu shot program” as an example of a wellness initiative, it creates confusion about what a wellness program should actually be.

Measuring results

One of the heavily promoted results from this survey is that 97% of respondents agreed that “the health of their employees influences their organization’s overall performance.” As noted in the report, this is no doubt an encouraging outcome, but what is less encouraging is the comparison of actual activities being undertaken by employers in regards to wellness efforts. Some of the key steps for creating a structured wellness program are being taken, such as securing senior level support, forming a steering committee and implementing a communications plan, but these have only been undertaken by a minority of respondents. Furthermore, some truly critical activities, such as conducting a needs assessment and recording baseline data, are only being done by 21% and 18% of organizations, respectively.

This leads to the important issue of recording and measuring outcomes. The survey asked, “What are the major health risks affecting the employees in your organization?” Work-related stress was by far the top health concern, but the report neglects to clarify that these responses are based entirely on the perception of the respondents. It is undeniable that work-related stress is on the rise and that it has many negative outcomes for organizations and their employees, including increased consumption of medications, increased absenteeism, disability and turnover, increases in insurance claims and decreased employee productivity, morale and work/life balance.

However, the presentation of this result would lead a casual observer to believe that 56% of organizations have determined through careful analysis that work-related stress is their number one health risk concern. The reality is that 56% of survey respondents, working in various HR roles, have come to this conclusion based on pure observation rather than any quantitative data. The Buffett report fails to clarify that this result is based solely on the perception of respondents.

In fact, the survey identified that only 21% of organizations are actively measuring employee health status. This is disappointing, because one of the key success factors for obtaining a return on investment from a wellness program is to measure and evaluate initiatives and outcomes. Without a baseline measurement that accurately identifies actual health risks, how can employers know if their wellness program is achieving its objectives? Conducting a health risk assessment or a corporate wellness diagnostic is a critical step for creating a wellness program that delivers tangible results. Only 36% of respondents continuously evaluate and record the outcomes of wellness efforts, meaning that most companies cannot even measure a return on investment from their wellness program, much less achieve one.

Return on investment

As explained in the Buffett report, measuring ROI for wellness programs is tricky for two main reasons: there is no consistent method for obtaining an accurate figure and the required data collection is barely happening to begin with. This explains why only 31% of organizations are measuring ROI, and the ones that are rely on soft data such as participation rates and employee feedback. A consultant with direct ties to many HR directors explained that the biggest obstacle he faces in promoting wellness programs is the lack of credible ROI data. Like many top HR decision makers, his clients are hesitant to make a full investment in wellness programs because they haven’t seen the proof of financial returns.

This represents a major obstacle in the adoption of wellness programs, but also a significant opportunity. Clearly, one of the critical things that must happen in Canada to ensure long-term growth in the adoption of wellness programs is that organizations must start measuring the data related to employee health. The importance of measuring the data cannot be overstated; employers consistently underestimate the effectiveness of wellness programs, despite the fact that those who do track their results have their expectations exceeded regularly. By promoting the necessity of measurement and analysis in Canada, the quantity and quality of data available can be improved and more concrete means of measuring ROI can be devised.

This will help organizations secure the necessary budget to invest in employee wellness. By and large, the number one obstacle organizations face in the implementation of wellness programs is a lack of budget resources. This particular result carries more weight than many in the Buffett report because detailed analysis isn’t required for the respondents to provide an accurate answer. Budget resources are lacking because employers and executives have yet to see the value in wellness programs, and because there is no concrete means of calculating ROI, there is insufficient data here in Canada.

This article has dwelled quite a bit on the negatives, but there are definitely positives that must be acknowledged. Despite the shortcomings of the Buffett National Wellness Survey, it is phenomenal that this research is being done on a national scale, for all stakeholders: employers, their employees and families, those working on the promotion of corporate wellness programs and the government and healthcare industry at large. It is encouraging to see that 43% of respondents plan to expand their current wellness plan in the next six months, and it is especially great to see that 97% agree that employee health is directly related to corporate success. What remains is to convince the employers and C-level executives.

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