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Avoiding a corporate health 911

Tips from the experts on building a health and wellness program for 2022 and beyond


It’s been one of those years. Or maybe this is just the “new normal” we often hear about.

Yet for many companies heading into the new year, it’s anything but normal when it comes to caring for their employees. New work models, different protocols and, overall, a stressed-out workforce are putting the focus squarely on what local experts say is a new generation of health and wellness programs.

Melanie Peacock, an associate professor who specializes in human resource management in the Bissett School of Business at Mount Royal University, notes occupational health and safety programs have been around for decades. Over the course of this pandemic, however, they have flourished into a front-line topic.

And she’s encouraged that many employers and employees alike are now openly talking about it in a much more encompassing manner.

“It’s not just about tying down cords or safely operating equipment. In the context of health and safety, we’re now starting to talk about things like harassment, bullying or the feeling of being left out. We’re talking about mental wellbeing,” says Peacock.

“And while these are not new topics, what we’ve done is illuminated and elevated our awareness and importance of a variety of occupational health and safety issues. These things have always mattered. They’re now just at the forefront.”

Peacock highlights employee assistance programs (EAPs) as being more important than ever. She acknowledges that while they are not cheap, research also shows a high return on investment through improved productivity and less time lost.

A 2020 Workplace Outcome Suite survey that interviewed more than 35,000 employees in 26 different countries found that ROI for employers ranged from 3:1 for small-size employers to 9:1 for large-size employers. The results found cost savings upward of $3,500 per employee using an EAP.

“Yet it’s not just about choosing any type of employee assistance program,” says Peacock. “Employers still need to research the provider. Make sure they’re reputable. I’d focus questions on things like their availability, who they hire, can they provide references – those kinds of things.

“Then, it’s about educating employees. A lot of those employees might not understand what those programs offer, which could include services such as financial advice and relationship counselling. And they need to know it’s all confidential.”

Nutritional programs are also becoming popular in supporting employee wellness and preventing escalating costs related to the employee health. According to the Dietitians of Canada, seven out of 10 major insurers now include dietitian services in their standard plans.

“When companies start to invest in their employees – whether that be through mental health or nutrition support – the only things they can do is enhance performance and show they care,” says Leslie Steeves, a Calgary-based registered dietitian at Grassroots Nutrition.

Steeves works on corporate nutrition programs for clients in industries such as oil and gas, often in the form of team lunch and learns, workshops, wellbeing initiatives or even challenges such as recipe swaps.

The challenge that is commonly being looked at these days is how to ensure employees’ nutritional needs are being met. After all, it’s not as simple as stocking the corporate pantry with healthy snacks given the rise of hybrid or fully-remote workplaces.

“It starts at the leadership level where the company’s culture becomes one where it’s OK to block off time to put their health first,” says Steeves. “Many employees don’t have access to the lunchroom anymore. They’re just grabbing something from the fridge at home and coming right back to their computers. They don’t put the time into healthy meal prep like they might have before.”

Next, employers should look at offering resources such as nutrition counselling services as part of their health insurance plans. Steeves points to research by the Dieticians of Canada that a healthy, well-fed employee can provide employers with a high ROI – for example, every $1 invested into dietician services saves $4 in drug costs.

In addition, it’s estimated that such programs can reduce health-related lost productivity by up to 64 per cent and decrease disability days by up to 87 per cent.

“For employees, when you’re fueled and nourished, it gives you the ability to have better decision-making capabilities,” says Steeves. “And for companies, you’re going to have employees who are more present.”

Moving forward, the dramatic transformation away from the once-traditional brick and mortar workplace that has occurred over the past two years is a theme Vince Danielsen believes will continue to play a prominent role in the development of future health and wellness programs.

The CEO of INLIV, a Calgary-based private health clinic, as well as Wello, a nationwide virtual health care platform, points to the high costs the pandemic is having on companies and their employees.

For example, he notes chronic illnesses are steadily on the rise, citing a Mental Health Commission of Canada study that’s found 70 per cent of disability claims are mental-health related.

“That wasn’t there before,” he says, adding prescription drug claims are also up by more than 12 per cent.

When companies are thinking about the future of work and their benefits, Danielsen suggests they start by thinking mobile.

“That means having the right technology in place so your employees can access the resources,” says Danielsen, whose organization works with companies in industries such as oil and gas, aviation, retail and technology.

“The second part is personalization. Someone at home with a mental health issue is going to need something quite different than someone at home with a musculoskeletal issue – both of which are on the rise.

“Mobile, flexible, personalized and customized – these are the philosophies that will help employers address things moving forward.”

Danielsen adds the ROI of these programs will often not be immediately obvious – often requiring regular reviews to find the right fit. So he preaches patience as employers look to realize the benefits.

Yet he also says that investment is more essential now than ever, especially because unprecedented mobility in workplace has created increased competition for talent.

To that end, he urges employers to be actively asking what their employees expect from them.

“Employees are going to choose environments that work for them,” says Danielsen. “So for employers, I’d suggest they focus on being supportive and have an encouraging culture. And to think about this not being a one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter type approach anymore.

“The responsibility of the employer is to have customized solutions to the segments of their workforce and what they’re going through. For example, the call centre staff with an airline are going to have very different needs than someone checking their bags or flying the plane.”

For companies still on the fence about investing in their health and wellness programs heading into 2022 – particularly after what might have been a lean 2021 – Peacock has one final piece of advice.

“Pay now or pay later,” she says. “It’s an investment. If you don’t spend the money now, there’s a chance your employees will leave. Then, you’ll be spending even more on recruitment and selection, not to mention the potential impact on your brand in the marketplace. And if they don’t leave, you might have to pay the cost of leaves or employees who come to work not engaged.

“It’s not about spending a lot of money. You can do things strategically based on what employees value. There are ways to get good bang for your buck.”