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Critical Issues Paper: Health And Wellness

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According to workers, organizations with significant wellness programs remain a minority. Demographic evidence suggests that the current laissez-faire attitudes toward workplace wellness found in many organizations will soon need to change. It's important to understand those needs to tailor a wellness program to the organization and its people. To be successful, wellness programs must be employee driven and management supported. (Walker, 2004)

For the state of workplace wellness the question has been asked, "Is your workplace well"? (Press, 1999) The reality of it all is some of the business leaders just don't get it. Why is stress such an issue? Why is depression such an issue? It there isn't some sensitivity to that, then the willingness of the people who hew the wood and draw the water is going to become less and less evident. We are going to have some very real labour problems. (Press, 1999)

Then the other underlying issue is the cost of workplace wellness programs where maintaining and enhancing health benefits can cause employer anxiety. These costs are steadily rising (Walker, 2004). Ironically, one of the solutions for reducing costs would appear to be nothing more complicated than preventative maintenance (Walker, 2004).

Employers are becoming increasingly engaged in activities associated with health promotion, nutrition, fitness and other workplace initiatives to promote both physical and mental wellbeing. Companies offering workplace wellness programs rose from 33 percent in 1993 to 39 percent just one year later (Walker, 2004).

In favor of

Wellness programs are an all-round win," says Tim Kelly, Irving's director of health services. "Employees like them because they're improving their health and well-being. The company likes them because healthier workers have fewer absences-they are on the job, and doing their jobs. And everybody wins because wellness programs build team spirit, improve work attitudes and commitment, and lead to increased productivity." (Walker, 2004)

Irving's success with its wellness programs isn't unique-other organizations report many of the same benefits with their wellness initiatives. For example, one major Canadian manufacturer saw lost-time injuries drop 66% after implementing its wellness program, with a corresponding 63% drop in its workers' compensation costs. Another cut its short-term disability costs in half, and saw its workers' compensation costs fall by 60%. A white-collar organization, concerned about retaining its top employees, saw attrition rates fall from 40% to 23% following the introduction of its wellness program (Walker, 2004).

The good news is that organizations that have already embraced workplace wellness have pioneered a wealth of best practices for others to follow. Every workforce is unique, and so are its wellness needs. It's important to understand those needs to tailor a wellness program to the organization and its people (Walker, 2004). Some organizations gather this information formally. Hamilton-based Dofasco Inc., for example, conducted a health audit before kicking off its Healthy Lifestyles program. The program now includes Weight Watchers, smoking cessation, noon-hour aerobics, a shiftwork and lifestyles program and much more. Similarly, Irving contracted an outside provider to conduct health risk assessments for its employees. Since employee health records are confidential, the companies receive only aggregate data on their employees' health, opposite measures of cholesterol levels, blood sugar levels, blood pressure and other metrics. They use this information to identify areas of focus for their wellness programs. Others take more informal approaches, such as gathering information anecdotally through their existing joint health and safety committee or by creating an employee-driven wellness committee. "We put out an e-mail asking for volunteers and 12 people joined right off the bat," says Michele Mawhinney, vice-president of human resources at Vancouver International Airport Authority. "Our committee members come from management and the union, and together have a wealth of insights about the health and well-being of our people, and where it needs improvement." (Walker, 2004)

Wellness programs result in much more than reduced absenteeism and lost-time injuries. American Express Canada, the 2001 winner of the National Quality Institute's Healthy Workplace Trophy (NQI is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to supporting excellence in Canadian firms), views workplace wellness as an integral component in its strategy to attract and retain quality workers. "To be the world's best service brand, we need outstanding people interacting with our customers," explains Judy Hatt, the company's director of human resources in Markham, Ont. "That's why one of our corporate objectives is to be a recognized employer of choice. We want people to be healthy and excited to be working here, and our wellness initiatives help us achieve that goal." (Walker, 2004)

Many organizations report that wellness programs help improve work environments, in turn leading to greater productivity. In fact, some companies with histories of volatile labour relationships have found that instituting wellness programs can go a long way towards healing the rifts between the company and its employees. (Walker, 2004)

In opposition of

Dr. James R. Nininger likely didn't mean to startle anyone when he addressed the annual general meeting of the National Institute of Nutrition recently. Still, his keynote speech, "Maintaining a Healthy Workforce: Employers Respond," did provide some alarming food for thought in regard to the increasingly onerous issue of employer health costs. (Toronto, 1996)

Nininger, who is president and CEO of the Ottawa-based Conference Board of Canada, told delegates that the Conference Board began seriously looking at Canadian health system changes about three years ago. That's when the Conference Board, with the support of Health Canada, conducted a national survey of more than 400 employers on the issue of rising health costs. As well, the study looked at some of the employer responses to these ever-burgeoning costs, which included such innovations as providing nutrition counseling, fitness club subsidies and smoking cessation courses. (The full results of the survey will be made public later this year.) (Toronto, 1996)

The key issue to emerge from the survey: there is growing anxiety among Canadian employers regarding the costs associated with maintaining



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