Highway to health

Workplace wellness

Workplace wellness programs deliver many benefits for employees and employers. Here’s how to start building your own

Alison Popp
HR specialist, SATOV Consultants

Healthier employees are more productive employees. They also miss work less and cost less for benefits. Smart employers intuitively know these facts, but there’s also plenty of evidence that workplace wellness programs pay off by improving the bottom line, and helping attract and retain top talent.

Don’t make the mistake of treating such programs as a frill. A 2010 Harvard University study suggests medical and absenteeism costs fall by $3.27 and $2.73, respectively, for every dollar companies spend on such efforts—that’s an impressive 500 per cent return. Organizations with employees highly engaged in their health and well-being are nearly 80 per cent more likely to see significantly better financial performance, according to the latest Staying@Work Survey Report conducted by consulting firm Towers Watson. Those with effective wellness programs also report lower voluntary turnover.

But, sadly, Canadian companies lag their American counterparts around promoting health in the workplace, according to Towers Watson. This is largely because of our different medical systems. We’re starting to catch up in sensible ways. “Canadian companies tend to focus more on offering employee support for different health/life stages, as well as on enabling and encouraging intrinsic motivation around making healthier personal choices,” Towers Watson says.

Workplace wellness programs show you care about your staff. And they expect support to maintain work-life balance. The good news: no matter your company size, programs needn’t be complex or costly. And because everyone stands to benefit, they have a high chance of success.

Get started with these three steps:

1. Do something

Your employees will give you credit for trying. The most effective wellness programs are designed with input from staff, according to U.S. public policy research group RAND Health.

Ask what employees want and can commit to long-term. Would they prefer friendly rivalry or would camaraderie and mutual support make the program stickier? Either way, take advantage of free technology to support these motivations.

Start small then build on your successes. Lead by example and incentivize. Don’t be afraid to fail. Just try something else and don’t give up.

2. Look at all angles

When people think of wellness at work, they might picture a lunchtime walking club. Be creative. Replace sugary pop and snacks with fruits and vegetables, teach simple stretching and relaxation techniques, or get a group gym discount. There’s no shortage of fun and easy ways to improve employee health.

Determine interest, long-term feasibility, budget and logistics. And don’t forget about mental health and stress. By thinking holistically, you’ll generate more ideas to build a program that better appeals to everyone.

Medicor Labs Corp., a U.S. developer of anti-stress medication, lists seven kinds of wellness that should be in balance: emotional, physical, environmental, social, occupational, intellectual and spiritual. Covering off every aspect of an employee’s health might dilute the effectiveness of any single initiative, but keep your eye on the big picture.

3. Get personal

Once you’ve figured out your program, make participation appealing and help staff decide what works best for them. For larger organizations, a buddy or mentor program is ideal to spread the word to hires. They’ll reap program benefits sooner, and company culture gets a boost.

As your program matures, staff must be able to expect reasonable requests for healthy workplace changes will be honoured. Focus first on prevention. Anecdotal evidence shows younger employees are most interested in wellness programs. But anxious to prove themselves, junior staff often don’t consider the long-term impact of long days of deskwork, heavy caffeine consumption, poor diet or skipped exercise.

Remember that employees may need to be educated and to give them the leeway to strike their own right balance between working hard and taking care of themselves. The more they can do that, the better they’ll feel, and the momentum will build until you both see the difference—and reap the rewards.