Pharmacists well-positioned for wellness

By Sonya Felix

The growing trend for employers to set up wellness programs in the workplace has opened up new opportunities for pharmacists.

“Pharmacists are one of the stakeholders in workplace wellness,” Lisa Heath, managed care consultant for Shoppers Drug Mart, told attendees at a recent conference in Toronto.

A line-up of experts at “Workplace Wellness: A Long-term Strategic Objective” talked about wellness as an important strategy for the workplace, the steps employers can take towards providing a healthy environment for employees and the role of healthcare professionals in wellness programs.

Although wellness programs are well-established in the U.S. where they began 30 years ago, the movement is just beginning in Canada. According to an Angus Reid poll of Canadian employees, 65% of respondents said that they don’t have access to an employee wellness program. Seventy-five percent said they’d like to see wellness as a part of their working relationship and 85% of individuals polled believe that wellness increases employee health and reduces healthcare costs.

Learning from the U.S. experience and paying attention to current research on workplace wellness could help Canadian employers create more successful programs, says Terry Sullivan, president of the Toronto-based Institute for Work and Health. He told attendees at the symposium that although occupational fatalities have fallen over the years, total sickness absence in Canada in 1997 was equivalent to 66 million work days. “The financial burden of disability costs, including payroll-financed workers’ compensation costs, disability benefits through CPP/QPP and group insurance, totals about $11 billion a year.”

The primary focus of wellness programs has tended to be on lifestyle issues–getting people to modify their diet, stop smoking and exercise, Sullivan said. But recent studies show a link between factors within the workplace and employee health. For example, a study done in Great Britain found that people in low-rung jobs with little control have more heart attacks than those in upper positions. “Job control is a bigger predictor of heart disease than lifestyle factors,” Sullivan said. “This is a major breakthrough in understanding workplace health. There is a relationship between demand and control in the work environment and how many times a person sees a doctor in a year.” He urged companies considering workplace wellness programs to go beyond lifestyle promotions and look at job structure and management practices.

Others at the conference discussed the need to educate employees about taking charge of their own health and to use the services of outside healthcare specialists such as physicians and pharmacists.

“Workplace wellness is a golden opportunity for community practitioners to join with employers to make the community healthy,” Heath said. Through its alliance with Buffett Taylor, Shoppers Drug Mart plans to be involved in total wellness programs that it says will result in optimum drug use, better employee health and reduced overall costs for employers.

“Pharmacists can help with employee education, teach people about prescription drugs and offer self-help techniques,” Heath said. “Pharmacists are accessible–they’re everywhere, are usually open long hours, typically don’t require appointments, and can do follow-ups by calling patients after dispensing drugs and documenting issues that come up.”

One of the benefits of using the services of a pharmacist to promote wellness is that pharmacists can communicate with people who don’t go into the workplace. “Families of employees, and those who are telecommuting need access to services off-site,” she said. “Cognitive services such as professional counselling and follow-ups can help bring all the bits of a wellness program together. Pharmacists’ involvement in wellness programs helps facilitate a more sustainable outcome.”

The conference was presented by the benefits consulting firm of Buffett Taylor & Associates Ltd., Maclean Hunter Publishing Limited, Shoppers Drug Mart Ltd. and the Wellness Councils of Canada.