The Case for Workplace Wellness

In 2011, Sun Life Financial, in alliance with the Ivey School of Business at Western University, commissioned a groundbreaking study on the return on investment of workplace wellness programs in Canada. The final results will be released in Q1 of 2016, but there is already significant insight: phase one of the study has found that corporate wellness programs “save about 1.5 to 1.7 days in absenteeism per worker over 12 months – an estimated $251 per employee, per year in savings.”

For companies looking to cut back on spending, the research is substantial. But workplace wellness programs aren’t just about monetary gains. Sometimes it’s about offering up a better work-life balance, increasing employee engagement or introducing staff to the concept of wellness entirely. In turn, workers feel more satisfied, appreciative and productive, and it’s a win-win from both a financial and social standpoint.

“Any company that’s starting a corporate wellness program needs a mission statement or guiding principle to clarify intent,” says Michelle Johnston, founder of Working Well, a corporate wellness agency that’s provided wellness solutions to organizations such as L’Oreal Canada and Bank of Montreal. Then communicate your mission to staff, she says, “and make sure it’s clear.”

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) had three aims when they began implementing wellness at their office: first, to increase time effectiveness for people with families (about 80% of the staff are women) through on-site yoga, meditation and Pilates classes in the mornings, at lunch and immediately after work; the second, to keep everyone in the company healthy; and third, to introduce wellness to as many people in the company as possible.

“We’re doing a squat challenge right now, and the whole idea is to get everyone up from their desks,” says Keven Reay, Associate Director of Human Resources at CPSO. “And we’ve just started offering Yoga Lite, for those who might be a bit fearful of getting into yoga, or for people who have never really exercised before,” he explains.

If you want to effect change in any company, it all boils down to having those at the top say, ‘this matters.’

The numbers don’t lie. For the last eight years, CPSO has been named a top GTA employer. Sick days average five days per year and voluntary turnover hovers around 3% to 5% each year. Their cost on benefits for drugs and medicine are also lower compared to market.

Lunch-and-learn sessions and wellness fairs are also great ways to get employees involved. At First National Financial, which has five offices across Canada, employees choose the wellness topics through an e-mail survey that’s sent out at the end of each year. Each office has different needs, and topics range from cancer prevention to nutritious eating.

At wellness fairs, 10 to 20 local wellness vendors, from organic snack companies to reflexology specialists, gather at the company; it’s like a mini health expo where employees can try out new products or receive health services.

“After a wellness fair one year, we got feedback that a large number of people in our Calgary office had high blood pressure,” says Sara Kennedy, who coordinates the wellness programs across First National Financial’s five Canadian offices. “It’s good to know from a human resources perspective so we can figure out how to help – maybe we need to hire more people or give our employees more resources.”

Johnston says that the best way to drive adoption of wellness programs across the organization is through leadership: “If you want to effect change in any company, it all boils down to having those at the top say, ‘this matters.’ You need management to actively participate in the program in some way because if they get it, everyone gets it.”

At InteraXon, the Toronto-based startup that created the Muse meditation headband, implementing wellness starts with CEO Ariel Garten, who has diligently imbedded meditation into the culture of the organization. “A lot of our staff come in knowing they’re joining a meditation company and that meditation is good for you, but they’re intimidated because they don’t know how to do it,” explains Garten.

Before some meetings, Garten and her team will meditate with Muse for about four to five minutes; she maintains that those meetings are always the most collaborative and productive. The company also has meditation teachers on staff who teach meditation classes every Wednesday afternoon, as well as a “Musing Room,” where employees are free to take breaks from duties at any point during the day to meditate.

“We’re running at such a fast pace, that we’re really out of touch with what our true biological and physiological needs are,” reiterates Johnston, who also says that stress management is usually one of the top priorities for most businesses.

Turns out, neuroscience backs meditation: numerous studies see a decrease in the activation of the brain’s default mode network (that which is responsible for the endless chatter which goes on in your head), a decrease in the activation of the amygdala (which triggers your fight or flight response) and an increase in the density of brain matter in those who meditate.

As a final tip, Johnston insists that a corporate wellness program should never add more stress to anyone in the organization. “We really love working with companies that are new to wellness, because they have passion, but it should be easy; we want to show organizations in Canada that creating a healthier workforce is possible,” she says.

The Case for Workplace Wellness
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