Healthy head start

This is the year to get with the program and focus on employee wellness.

Google the buzz phrase "workplace wellness" and nearly 1.4 million results pop up — a pretty good indicator that the contentment and health of office staff is top of mind among employers and employees. These days, it’s not enough to simply offer a benefits package with basic dental coverage and prescription glasses every two years.

While plenty of large companies (think those with 500-plus employees) have jumped on the well-being bandwagon, the 2013 Sun Life-Buffet National Wellness Survey reported that a whopping 87% of organizations still say they don’t measure the health status of their workers. Plus, 40% of small businesses with fewer than 50 employees don’t offer any wellness programs at all. These are scary stats, considering a physically and mentally unhealthy workforce increases a handful of issues that are bad for business such as burnout and lack of job engagement; absenteeism and presenteeism; more short- and long-term disability claims; decreased productivity and customer service; as well as illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, depression and anxiety. The fact is that 60% of us spend our days sitting (not helping the 36% who are overweight and 23% who are obese) and 66% report high job stress.

The survey, which drew responses from more than 400 Canadians in companies big and small representing nonprofit, public and private businesses, found that employers who make the well-being trifecta — physical, mental and social health — a priority in the workplace are reaping more tangible benefits from their wellness programs than ever before: 18% have had fewer disability claims; 23% have noticed improved employee retention; 30% cite a boost in productivity; 36% have received positive feedback from employees; 40% have seen fewer cases of absenteeism; and 51% say they have experienced better office morale.

If that’s not enough to get you on the horn with HR about starting a wellness program in your workplace, consider this: according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, the cost of lost employee output due to absenteeism, presenteeism and turnover will pass the hundreds of billions mark within the next 30 years. It would be remiss to ignore the staggering return on investment stats — most organizations usually claim anywhere from $2 to $8 for every dollar spent.

"The assumption in the workplace is that employees can go, go, go — and that’s false. People are not robots. Even robots need to recharge," says Bailey Vaez, president of Proactive Movement, a Toronto-based company that provides workplace wellness assessments and programming. "If you’re seeing low energy and burnout, there are issues that need to be fixed," she says. "The cost of these issues are toxic interactions with clients, sick days and employees leaving. Whether you have a small firm of 25 or an organization with thousands of employees, you don’t need to spend an arm and a leg on workplace wellness." Here are some ideas to get started.

Eat better. Start small. Replace the calorie-laden goodies in the vending machine with healthier snacks (try nuts and dried fruit) for folks who feel peckish. Or move the candy-and-chip dispenser away from high-traffic areas. "I had one client who moved theirs to the bowels of the building so employees would have to walk and at least get a little exercise to get a snack," says Beverly Beuermann-King, a corporate stress and wellness expert in Little Britain, Ont. Meet with food services in the building cafeteria and encourage better pricing on healthy fare while adding a higher premium to greasy, fatty dishes. "These changes require little effort and really give the message that management supports the opportunity for healthy decision-making," she says.

Get active. A full day’s work, a couple of hours commuting and a family to tend to leave little time for getting much-needed exercise. Give employees a pedometer and have walking or stair-climbing challenges, or team up with a nearby fitness club to offer subsidized gym memberships. If you have a big group of diehard soccer fans, start a team. Beuermann-King says offering fitness breaks throughout the workday allows employees to feel empowered to take a few minutes to step away from their computer.

Inspire healthy habits. The workday would be a lot less stressful if organizations offered an onsite massage therapist. Some companies have therapists come in and give neck and head massages to employees while they’re sitting at their desks working. If you notice folks hanging out in the smoking area outside the building, think about offering a smoking cessation program. Flu shot and screening clinics (for things like blood pressure and blood sugar levels) are cost-effective ways to keep the office in the pink.

Boost mental health. "Instead of taking 20 minutes to complain about other colleagues, a much better use of that time would be to rejuvenate with a 20-minute mindfulness session," Vaez says. Mindfulness — the practice of being present and in the moment while focusing on your breathing — has a proven track record in Fortune 500 organizations for lessening employee stress (and stress-related illnesses) and improving concentration, creativity and efficiency. (Hey, if it works for Google and Facebook, it’s worth a shot.) Yoga, tai chi and meditation sessions are also popular, as well as setting up a nap room so people who have been burning the candle at both ends working on important projects can grab a catnap during office hours.

Make work (and personal) life easier. Sure, it’s not the boss’s job to set up parenting classes, retirement planning seminars and financial literacy sessions, but helping employees in any way pays dividends. Beuermann-King says flex time, telecommuting options and childcare facilities (or subsidies with local daycares) are worth exploring. Even offering a concierge service to assist employees with crossing things off their personal to-do lists, such as helping a busy parent organize a child’s birthday party, has incredible value. "It might sound frivolous, but it frees up time and energy that the employee might not otherwise have," she says. What’s more, making sure everyone in the office knows it’s perfectly acceptable to put away their BlackBerrys after work speaks volumes. "One company had its servers turned off at 5:30 p.m. Employees could compose emails, but couldn’t send or receive until business hours," she says. Finally, when higher-ups notice employees haven’t been taking vacation days, management should make sure their teams cash in on well-deserved time off. "Progressive bosses know that workers will come back recharged," says Beuermann-King.

Practise what you preach. "Management buy-in is critical. You can have great policies but if employees are made to feel guilty for using them, companies might as well not start them," warns Beuermann-King. Vaez agrees, adding that when the C-suite is involved and communicates its participation in wellness programs, it creates a culture of care. "The message employees get is, we care about you and your well-being and we want you to take advantage of these programs."