OHS Canada Magazine

Well-Conceived Wellness

April 1, 2009
By Andrew D'cruz - Andrew D'Cruz Is Editorial Assistant Of OHS CANADA.
Health & Safety

WHEN VANCOUVER'S AIRPORT saw lost-time injuries climbing skyward in the late 1990s, it became clear that a new flight plan was in order.

WHEN VANCOUVER’S AIRPORT saw lost-time injuries climbing skyward in the late 1990s, it became clear that a new flight plan was in order.

The soaring numbers were partly the result of the Vancouver International Airport Authority’s (VIAA) focus in the preceding few years on building a new runway and terminal facility. Those projects coincided with a sizeable increase in days lost to work-related injury, from 133 in 1996 to 222 in 1999.

After hiring a new occupational health and safety manager, officials with the country’s second busiest airport decided to move from what a Canadian Labour and Business Centre (CLBC) case study calls a mere “regulatory approach” to one that is “proactive, caring and people-focused.” Enter workplace wellness.

The aptly named Take Off to Wellness program featured a points-based incentive system to “encourage [VIAA] employees to adopt healthy lifestyles,” notes the CLBC report. The VIAA helped grease the wheels with discounts for nearby gyms, wellness and health seminars, and a family assistance counselling program.

Soon enough, encouraging results began to pour in: lost-time accidents and days lost to injury began to decline, employees reported reduced stress, and company loyalty and employee retention were improved.


Plus, minus

The potential benefits of a workplace wellness program are well-known: a healthier and happier work force, fewer days lost to injury or illness, reduced health care costs and higher productivity. The path to a successful program, however, is not without hurdles. One obstacle a lot of programs face is getting as many employees as possible to participate.

That was certainly the experience of Casa Grande, Arizona, when the city started a pilot wellness program for employees in October, says Margaret Pieper, human resources analyst for the city. “It’s hard to get certain groups of employees on board,” Pieper says, particularly those who work at sites away from city hall or who keep irregular schedules, like firefighters and police officers. Efforts have proven much more immediately effective with office workers, she notes.

“I believe just [having a variety of] options is one of the best things,” says Garth Jansen. The president of London, Ontario-based Employer’s Edge Inc., Jansen helps businesses in Ontario, Nova Scotia and Alberta design and run complete wellness initiatives.

Jansen says he strives to ensure “there are a number of different activities or initiatives that are going on at the same time.” A more “analytical” worker may respond to brochures, kiosks or newsletters, he notes, whereas someone who is more “group-oriented” may be drawn to team-based exercises, workshops and seminars.

But perhaps even more important than having options on the table is providing individual attention to each employee who decides to participate. “To get real results and have somebody walk away saying, ‘that related to me,'” Jansen says it is necessary to “make sure that there’s some individual attention given.”

Meeting with wellness consultants offers workers a chance to ask questions and “allows them to set a game plan that’s at their level, that’s at their pace.” Without that personal touch, a wellness program may end up like so many lunch & learns: broad enough to appeal to everyone, but not terribly useful for anyone.

At Casa Grande, employees sign up online by filling out a short survey about their fitness, nutrition and exercise habits. Next, they undergo biometric testing to obtain counts on cholesterol, blood sugar, triglycerides, weight, body fat, strength and flexibility.

The result of all this data gathering? A personal “wellness report” which highlights “the areas that we might be low in, that we want to address,” Pieper says. Employees take the report to their first meeting with a health coach, who helps lay out wellness objectives.

Pieper, who recently completed her first half-marathon thanks in large measure to the program, likens her frequent sessions with the health coach to a free appointment with a doctor or physical therapist.

Up, down

Nicky Billou has his own way of motivating employees to join wellness programs. The dot-com corporate director-turned fitness evangelist argues workplace wellness must come from the top — which is one reason he launched Canada’s Fittest CEO, a fundraiser for the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto that will pit top bosses against each other in a 10-event “true test of fitness,” scheduled for this May.

Participants will be scored on each “event” — such as push-ups and sit-ups — that will serve as a complete test of every part of the body, as well as cardiovascular endurance, balance and core strength, says Billou.

He is of the mind that when managers visibly embrace a healthy lifestyle, their attitude is bound to trickle down. “I’m not saying every person in the organization is going to jump all over it, but a good number of people are going to sit up and take notice.”

Joking, Jansen adds, “I’m not expecting the CEO to go out and get a brand new yoga outfit and wear it to work every day.” At a minimum, though, he thinks management should send out emails promoting the program, and show up to the occasional group activity.

Even if staff participation is high, it can be difficult to evaluate a wellness program’s success since many of the benefits — say, employee morale — are intangible.

One measure companies will turn to, says Jansen, is absenteeism. The idea is that a healthier work force should require fewer sick days and visits to the doctor. Similarly, the number of workers’ comp claims may be expected to decline.

As a trial for the first year, Pieper reports Casa Grande’s insurer is actually paying for the city’s program, in the hope that it will recoup its costs in reduced payouts for claims.

And while Pieper is looking forward to lower health care premiums, she finds the gradual cultural change encouraging as well. “People have adjusted lifestyles, started exercising and eating differently,” she says. “If employees continue to utilize it, then employees are obviously getting something from it.”

Jansen has found that once wellness is embedded in the business culture, a company becomes more attractive as an employer. “We’re always learning. We’re finding out that the benefits of a wellness program, they’re never-ending.”


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