Of the array of benefits an employer may choose to offer to their employees, a well-developed workplace wellness program can have a large impact on helping employees make healthy choices. 

While various programs have been available for many years, why is it important for employers to provide innovative and effective wellness programs now?

The Public Health Agency of Canada published a 2017 report, Against the Growing Burden of Disease, that indicates 3 out of 5 Canadians older than 20 have a chronic disease, and rates of incidence are increasing by 14 percent each year. 

As we age, our waistlines expand and our incidence of disease increases, and the demand for workplace programs aimed directly at our health needs increases. In addition to physical concerns, stress and other mental health issues in the workplace have grown at an alarming rate. Helping employees cope with stressors at work, through physical activities such as yoga or by providing confidential access to counsellors, serves to improve overall health.

The health of employees matters to employers — healthy, productive employees decrease absenteeism and prevent “presenteeism” (present but not as productive employees). They are also less likely to go on disability or to suffer a workplace accident. 

The Sanofi Canada 2017 Health Care Survey tells us that a workplace culture that encourages health and wellness also results in better employee satisfaction. Companies with this type of workplace had 86 percent of employees agree with the statement “I am satisfied with my job.”

In 2010, a survey conducted by Sunlife Financial on workplace wellness, Profits of Wellness, found that there are several barriers individuals may encounter in trying to achieve healthier lifestyles. 

Barriers include lack of access to equipment/facilities (18 percent) and lack of money (39 percent). A lack of time was reported as a barrier by 46 percent. While the largest barrier, lack of willpower at 61 percent, may be the most difficult to surmount, employers can assist in reducing obstacles.

Some ideas include bringing activities into the workplace, providing access to gyms, encouraging alternative methods of commuting such as walking or bicycling, or offering discounted transit passes. These are all great examples of workplace wellness programs that make it easy for employees to participate.

A workplace wellness program looks to shift behaviours in at least four key areas — diet, smoking, exercise, and mental health.  These are the four key areas that can impact the development of chronic disease. 

However, a well-developed program goes further than providing programmatic services and wellness information.  An example might be to offer work/life balance initiatives such as flexible work schedules, leave for family obligations, and working remotely. 

Wellness programs should also include a workplace review, both from the work environment perspective, like stand-up desks, ergonomic chairs, and appropriate lighting, as well as workplace management practices, like communication, onboarding, and team activities.

What are some of the new workplace wellness services that employers are starting to provide to employees? 

Vaccinations, especially for personal travel purposes, can be a costly pre-trip expense and a valuable benefit to the traveller, if paid by the employer. Personal coaching from a health care provider, counsellor, or a fitness coach is increasingly being seen as an exciting option. 

Offer a better lunch environment that has fruit readily available, along with other healthy food and drink options. Increasingly, employees are looking for customization to their needs — the program should be varied and flexible to allow employees to choose options that match their goals.

Given the value of a workplace wellness program, if you are an employee with this benefit, take the opportunity to learn what is available to you. Increase your health literacy by taking charge and understanding the changes you need to make to be healthier. 

Developing a fitness or health habit can take considerable effort, with estimates ranging from 21 to 66 days of daily repetition. Don’t despair if you slip up occasionally, and use the workplace wellness services available to you to help you achieve your goals!