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Chronic Disease in the Workplace

Nelofar Kureshi MD, MHI

Case Manager and Clinical Researcher

Rupert Case Management Inc.

More than 40% of Canadians say they live with at least one chronic disease including heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, high blood pressure, arthritis, cancer, diabetes, and mood disorders. The incidence of chronic illness in youth aged 12-19 is approximately 6%, rising to 13% in the 20-39 year old age group, and progressively increasing thereafter.  According to the World Health Organization, chronic disease is expected to account for 89% of all deaths in Canada.

With the increasing prevalence of chronic illness and growing number of aging Canadians in the workforce, chronic disease is not just a personal health issue, but also poses a significant burden on employers. Up to 55% of Canadian employees claim they suffer from a chronic illness1 or injury and the price tag for employers is an increase in health benefits costs due to absenteeism, short-term disability and long term disability. There is also loss in productivity from employee presenteeism (a worker being present but unable to effectively do his or her work). An ill employee may spend an average of 48 minutes of their workday researching his or her disease on the Internet or talking about it with colleagues.

A recent study from the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences and Public Health found that 98.6% of subjects had at least one of five major risk factors that can lead to chronic disease 2.

62% of Canadians are overweight 3, 46% are not active enough and 20% smoke 4. The direct economic costs are shocking:

• Obese employees on average are absent 13 times more often than non-obese employees and incur medical claims costs almost seven times higher 5.

• Every smoker costs his or her employer an additional $3,396 per year due to increased absenteeism, decreased productivity and the costs of maintaining smoking facilities 6.

• Work stress is now the leading cause of worker disability in Canada .Burnout costs Canadian business an estimated $12 billion every year in health claims, lost productivity and

absenteeism 7

Additionally, a significant proportion of employees with a personal or family experience with the healthcare system due to chronic conditions could be losing time and productivity because they don’t know where to turn for services or coverage, or because the assistance they do receive may be inadequate, confusing or overwhelming 8.

Companies that understand chronic illness and the effects on employees’ personal lives and workplace productivity will implement workplace health and wellness programs including health risk screening.

By doing so, employers seek to gain from significant bottom line benefits such as higher revenue per employee and fewer days absent per employee per year.

In fact, for every $1.00 spent on wellness programs, medical costs fall by about $3.27 and absenteeism costs fall about $2.73 9.


1 Commonwealth Fund 2010 International Health Policy Survey. The Commonwealth Fund, New York, NY.

2. Manuel DG, Perez R, Bennett C, et al. Seven more years: the impact of smoking, alcohol, diet, physical activity and stress on health and life expectancy in Ontario. An ICES/PHO Report. Toronto: Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences and Public Health Ontario, 2012.

3. Statistics Canada. Measured adult body mass index (BMI) by age group and sex, household population age 18 and over excluding pregnant females, Canada (excluding territories) (CANSIM table 1050507).Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2009.

4. Statistics Canada. Health indicator profile, annual estimates, by age group and sex, Canada, provinces, territories,health regions (2011 boundaries) and peer group (CANSIM table 1050501).

Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2012.

5. Ostbye et al. “Obesity and Workers’ Compensation: Results from the Duke Health and Safety Surveillance System.” Archives of Internal Medicine. April 2007

6. The Conference Board of Canada. “Smoking and the Bottom Line: Updating the Costs of Smoking in the Workplace.” August 2006.

7. Canadian Mental Health Association

8. The Sanofi Canada Healthcare Survey, 2013

9. Harvard University: Health Affairs. “Workplace Wellness Programs Can Generate Savings,” February 2010.