Over half of Canadians with benefits plans are living with at least one chronic health condition, according to a recent survey.  This alarming statistic illustrates a growing problem in our country. Chronic diseases like diabetes, arthritis, hypertension, and mental health disorders are on the rise. They are placing immense strain on healthcare systems, workplaces, and employees.
But by understanding the scope of the issue, providing better support, and making lifestyle changes, we can manage chronic conditions more effectively. With some effort, we may even be able to stem the rising tide.
This article will explore the prevalence of chronic disease in Canada. It will look at the workplace impacts, especially of highly prevalent conditions like chronic pain, and will offer thoughts on how different stakeholders can take action to improve the situation.
What is a Chronic Illness?
Chronic illnesses are long-lasting or recurrent medical conditions. They persist for at least 12 months or one year but often go on much longer.  Some common examples are diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, cancer, and mental health disorders.
Mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia are also considered chronic illnesses. They require regular psychotherapy sessions. Medication, lifestyle changes, and social support can also help. However, it often means lifelong care.
The common thread is that chronic conditions persist and necessitate ongoing medical management, unlike acute illnesses that pass quickly. Learning to live with and control chronic disease is crucial for preserving quality of life.
According to the World Health Organization, chronic diseases are the leading cause of disability and death worldwide.  Their prevalence is rising globally. Canada is no exception to this trend.
The Prevalence of Chronic Disease by the numbers
The 2023 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey sheds light on the current scope of chronic disease in Canada. It found that 54% of benefits plan members have at least one diagnosed chronic condition. This indicates that chronic illnesses affect over half of the Canadian workforce with health benefits.
The most commonly reported conditions were:
- Mental health disorders like depression or anxiety affect 18% of those surveyed. Rates of conditions like depression have been rising steadily over the past few decades.
- Arthritis also affects 12% of those surveyed.
- Hypertension at 10%. Again, this is likely tied to increasing obesity, poor diets, and sedentary lifestyles. Also a major predictor of heart attacks and strokes.
- Chronic pain was reported by 10%. Includes conditions like migraines, back pain, and neuropathic pain. Pain is highly limiting and often linked to mental health issues.
- Diabetes at 10%. 90% of cases are type 2 diabetes, closely tied to diet and weight. Poor blood sugar control can lead to nerve, kidney, eye, and heart complications. 
- High cholesterol was reported by 12% of respondents. As rates of obesity have climbed in Canada, high cholesterol has become more common. This is a major risk factor for heart disease. 
Yet employers are underestimating the scope of chronic disease. They estimate only 43% of their workforce is affected, up slightly from 32% in 2016, but this still vastly under-represents the real picture.
Recognizing the true prevalence of chronic conditions is crucial for developing impactful workplace wellness and chronic disease management programs.
Those with conditions like chronic pain, mental illness, arthritis, obesity, and lung problems are more prone to poor health. However, 59% of those with chronic pain don’t take time off work when it’s severe. So, these conditions take a silent toll.
Recognizing the true scope of chronic disease is crucial. Only then can we make headway on solutions.
The Costs of Chronic Pain
Chronic pain deserves special focus, given its impact. Only 10% of benefits plan members now have an official chronic pain diagnosis. Conditions like migraines, back pain, arthritis, and fibromyalgia all fall under this umbrella.
For a third of those with chronic pain, it makes daily productivity difficult. 22% say it affects them 1-2 times per week. Over a quarter need multiple days off when the pain is bad, and another 13% need at least a few hours off.
This demonstrates how chronic pain substantially reduces workability. It also harms mental health since pain is stressful and limiting. Those with chronic pain are far more prone to reporting poor general and mental health.
For employers, this translates to:
- More absenteeism as pain causes sick days
- Presenteeism, where employees are at work but less productive
- Higher benefits and healthcare costs
- More turnover if employees quit due to health issues
- Lower engagement and morale
Managing and supporting chronic pain is crucial for organizational success.
Lifestyle Factors and Self-Management
How are chronic conditions being treated? The 2023 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey provides insight.
Medication is the top method used by 47% of those with chronic conditions. But lifestyle approaches like diet, exercise, and counseling are also popular. 38% are improving their diet, 35% increasing physical activity, 16% using mental health counseling, and 15% utilizing paramedical services. Alarmingly, 18% do nothing to treat their illnesses. This highlights the need for greater patient education and support.
Lifestyle factors make a big difference in coping with chronic disease. Steps like eating well, staying active, reducing stress, and getting enough sleep allow people to function at their best despite ongoing symptoms.
Making the workplace more ergonomic and flexible can also help those with chronic pain stay productive. Simple changes like standing desks, regular breaks, and adjusted hours go a long way.
Employers should promote healthy lifestyles among staff with chronic conditions. The government should also invest more in chronic disease prevention and management programs. But at the end of the day, the individual must take charge of their health.
Doing so isn’t always easy. But with the right knowledge, resources, discipline, and support system, even severe chronic conditions can be managed effectively.
The Path Forward
Chronic disease prevalence is on the rise, causing immense human and economic costs, and understanding the scope of the problem is the first step toward solutions.
Employers must recognize that chronic conditions affect more than half their workforce. They should provide comprehensive benefits, workplace wellness initiatives, chronic disease management programs, and ongoing support. The government can fund research, education, prevention efforts, and treatment support. Investing in chronic disease now will save money down the road.
As for employees, they must learn about risk factors, take advantage of workplace resources, and, most importantly, prioritize lifestyle changes. Even modest improvements in diet, activity, and stress can make a dramatic difference.
The statistics seem grim, but the outlook doesn’t have to be.
Contact Pivotal Solutions to consult with our expert team