Wellness That Works: Award-Winning Workplace Health Strategies

April 1, 2014

Wellness That Works: Award-Winning Workplace Health Strategies

February 10, 2014

By Deborah Jann, Principal, and Sonya Stevens, Consultant, Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions

Wellness That Works

How “well” are your employees?

Employers have, for some time, shown an increased awareness and concern about the physical health of their employees. This has manifested in a wide array of on-site programs to address everything from weight loss to ways of preventing back injuries.

However, a growing number of employers have recognized that physical health is only one aspect of a broader concern about the “wellness” of employees. Are they mentally healthy? Do they cope with the endless task of balancing work and home life? Are they able to manage stress and channel it into productivity? Employee Assistance Programs are now par for the course in most employers’ benefit packages to support employees with these types of challenges.

Increasingly, wellness programs are being united into an overall workplace wellness strategy that links employee physical and mental health to the organization’s productivity and workplace culture.

Studies of employee absenteeism, engagement and turnover consistently show that employees who are physically unhealthy, mentally or emotionally burdened, or just unable to deal with the day-to-day stress of working life, cannot contribute to their organization’s broader business goals.

Of greater concern are studies showing that unhealthy workers cost employers more money.

Johnson & Johnson, one of the world’s largest conglomerates, studied the impact of wellness programs on its global workforce from 2002-2008. The company estimated that it saved $250 million on health care costs by helping employees quit smoking and seek medical treatment for high-blood pressure or obesity. That was a return of $2.71 for every dollar the company invested.

In subsequent reviews of other such studies, Harvard Business Review (HBR) was able to report that on average, well-executed wellness programs can reap savings of $2.27 on health care costs and $1.73 on reduced absenteeism and related labour costs.

HBR’s conclusion? “Wellness programs have often been viewed as a nice extra, not a strategic imperative. Newer evidence tells a different story.”

There are indications that more organizations are getting the message about workplace wellness, and how happier, healthier employees are ultimately a big boost to the bottom line. Many are taking a holistic approach, bundling together benefits and programs that look after the body, the mind and – in some cases – the spirit of their employees.

“We’ve seen a very positive shift in the last decade in terms of the climate, understanding and promotion of workplace wellness,” said Jane Riddell, Chief Operating Officer at GoodLife Fitness. “Forward-thinking organizations in Canada understand that there is a tremendous benefit to investing in workplace wellness programs and making that a core part of their business strategy. Those are the folks that get it.”

In November 2013, GoodLife hosted a Fitness, Health and Wellness Leadership Summit that celebrated organizations that are leading in the development of total wellness initiatives. The award winners showed that there are no limits to the creativity that can be used in promoting and sustaining workplace wellness.

From on-site fitness and education to philanthropy, more employers are building workplace conditions that can better support employee health and wellness, whether they are at work or at home.

That does not mean that we’ve cracked the code on wellness. There are still many questions about the efficacy of some wellness programs, and the direct link between employee participation and the resulting impact on, for example, health care benefits usage and costs to the employer.

In Canada (unlike in the U.S.), where employers do not bear the direct cost of employee health care, the value of making wellness programs mandatory – or for limiting the availability of certain benefits based on the presence of health risk indicators (such as smoking or obesity) – is unclear. It is clear, however, that even if there was a business case to be made for mandatory participation, forcing employees to participate may not actually produce better health outcomes. 

So what does work?

Best practices suggest that the most effective wellness programs are easily accessible, designed around meaningful employee consultation, multi-faceted, and focused on building enthusiasm rather than coercion.

As demonstrated by some of the GoodLife Fitness award-winners, the key to success has been variety, creativity, and support from the highest levels of the organization.

Nestlé Purina 
Whenever Monika Petsopoulos needs a boost in morale, she packs up her West Highland White Terrier, Baxter, and takes him to work at Nestlé Purina Canada’s head office in Mississauga, Ontario.

Bringing a beloved canine friend to work is just one of the ways Nestlé Purina – one of the world’s largest makers of pet food – helps improve the mental and physical wellness of its employees.

“I don’t bring (Baxter) to work every day, but when I do it makes the whole day much more enjoyable,” said Petsopoulos, a human resource specialist for Nestlé  Purina, which employs about 600 people across Canada including 180 at head office.

Managing pets in the office does require some thoughtful planning. Nestlé Purina has a “canine code of conduct” and provides an off-leash park so that dogs can socialize and work off any nervous energy, Petsopoulos said.

Beyond companionship, however, the pet policy tends to have other wellness benefits, Petsopoulos said. For example, through “Walk This Way”, employees are encouraged to walk their dogs as much as possible, and to track the distances they travel on a company website.

Employees and their dogs are each provided with pedometers and the readings are logged on the website. Employees can log in to see how far they and their colleagues have walked across Canada.

In addition to pet-related activities, Nestlé Purina offers a wide range of general health and wellness programs, including on-site fitness classes with GoodLife Fitness associates, lunch-and-learn seminars on general health and nutrition, and a steady stream of wellness information through company bulletin boards.

The ability to bring pets to work, along with the general health and wellness education, has created a unique culture at Nestlé Purina, Petsopoulos said. “I think we all get along better because we can interact with each other’s pets.”

Westin Calgary 
Didier Luneau, general manager of the iconic Westin Calgary, starts every Friday morning with two minutes of vigorous dancing with his housekeeping staff.

“That’s right, every Friday I’m doing the Twist with my housekeeping team,” said Luneau. “I find that it’s the best way to get the day started and to put everyone in a good mood.”

That concern for the mood of 300-plus employees is what distinguishes the health and wellness programs at the Westin Calgary, a 26,000-square-foot, 525-room hotel that is this year celebrating its 50th anniversary.

Luneau said he has tried to take the core of the hotel’s meticulous philosophy of customer service and apply it to employee health and wellness. This means ensuring that all employees, regardless of department, are given opportunities to improve their bodies, minds, and spirits, Luneau said.

“Our philosophy is that guests should leave happier and feeling better than when they arrived,” said Luneau. “We have taken this philosophy and applied it for our employees.”

All employees are free to use the hotel’s facility, including fitness centre, during less-busy periods. As well, on-site Zumba, yoga and Tai Chi classes are offered.

However, the focus on health and wellness does not stop with physical activity. Luneau said there is a huge emphasis on good nutrition through the “Super Food” program, which offers advice on how to eat and cook healthily while also ensuring there is a robust assortment of nutritious options in the employee cafeteria. 

For the spirit, Luneau said the hotel has aggressively reached out to the community to help those less fortunate. The Westin Calgary was the first hotel in the Oil City to make excess banquet meals available to shelters. Whenever there is extra food, it is portioned and frozen quickly.

Last year, Luneau said the hotel was able to provide more than 15,000 meals to Calgarians in need.

The result of the fitness and nutrition help, along with options to volunteer and help out those in need, have made the Westin a preferred employer in the Calgary hotel industry, Luneau added.

“People are pretty happy to work in this environment,” he said. “We have some associates who have been with us for 35 or 40 years and our associate engagement numbers typically lead all of our properties in Canada.”

When ING DIRECT wanted to improve the health and wellness of their employees, it decided to go right to the heart of the matter.

Last year, the financial services company worked with their benefits provider to provide their employees with an on-site cardiovascular screening clinic. Employees were able to attend the clinic to get screened for possible cardiovascular health problems and tips on how to make changes to their health.

According to Kimberly Dearmer, a human resource specialist at ING DIRECT, the clinic allowed the company to collect aggregate data to better design its future health and wellness programs.

“Bringing the topic of wellness to mind for our employees is an important part of what we do here,” said Dearmer. “Every year we try to do new things and get feedback from our employees on what kind of things they would like to get involved in.”

That feedback has helped ING DIRECT design a wide array of health and wellness initiatives. For example, the company offers a generous “wellness subsidy benefit” that allows employees to claim the cost of fitness and physical activity related items, such as health club memberships and fitness equipment.

The bank has also organized a walking challenge and nutritional seminars and provides their employees with healthy food options through their onsite restaurant.

“Our programs make our people happy to come to work,” said Dearmer. “Our CEO and executive team is very active, and our population is also very active outside of work. They all respond very positively to these initiatives.”

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