HR leaders talk

Obesity in the workplace
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/21/2009

Gord Johnston
Vice-president of human resources
Bayer Canada
The pharmaceutical giant employs 1,000 staff with head offices in Toronto.

At pharmaceutical company Bayer Canada, keeping employees healthy goes beyond worrying about their weight, says Gord Johnston, vice-president of HR.

“I much prefer to understand employee health risks, whether they’re obesity, whether they’re other things (where) employers can play a role to help employees reduce or mitigate their risks,” he says.

That includes focusing on the risks for different diseases, such as diabetes, so employees can prevent them before they develop, because managing a disease is costly for the employee, the company and society, says Johnston.

“The focus isn’t necessarily on obesity, it’s on healthy living because there are a number of things that may contribute to employee health,” says Johnston.

By focusing on the broader wellness issues, the company also helps employees be more productive.

“We have developed programs and initiatives dedicated to balancing a healthy lifestyle, mentally and physically, for our employees. It is our belief that when employees are in good health, they will be more effective and successful in their work,” he says.

The company’s Life at Work program provides support and resources to help employees enhance health and well-being in three areas: physical, social and environmental.

The physical dimension includes fitness and nutrition. There’s a free on-site fitness centre, which opened in 2006, with access to personal trainers and sessions on healthy eating. About 56 per cent of employees at the head office use the fitness centre and 30 per cent sign up for fitness classes.

“The program has been in place for less than two years, so we were very pleased with those results,” says Johnston.

Up to 60 per cent of employees are salespeople who work in the field and don’t have access to the on-site fitness centre. The company gives these employees a health subsidy they can use to join a health club, Weight Watchers or some other kind of health program. About 37 per cent of field employees are receiving the subsidy.

To encourage good eating habits, the company also subsidizes healthy food options in the cafeteria.

The social dimension includes group activities, flexible working hours and a quiet room for employees, while the environmental dimension is about helping employees connect with the environment, such as encouraging employees to take advantage of a nearby walking trail and establishing an environmental committee.

The Life at Work program is driven by an employee committee of the same name that came about after a 2005 employee survey identified work-life issues as being important to employees.

The committee sends out communications to employees about new offerings, has a page on the company intranet and uses employee feedback to improve the current offerings. One recent upgrade that came about was to the washrooms in the fitness centre, including the addition of saunas, says Johnston.

The volunteer-driven committee is made up of employees from across the company, including occupational health and safety and human resources.

Johnston has seen some improvements in benefit costs since the fitness club opened.

“We’ve had reductions in long-term disability costs and short-term disability,” he says, although these can’t be tied to any one initiative.

Going forward, the company is considering doing an employee health survey later this year to better understand the aggregate health risks, such as blood pressure and cholesterol, employees are facing so Bayer can implement programs that will address those risks.

“In the long run, that would reduce benefit costs for Bayer and society in general,” says Johnston.

Laura Thanasse
Senior vice-president, total rewards
Headquartered in Toronto, Scotiabank and its affiliates employ more than 60,000 people in retail, commercial, corporate and investment banking in 50 countries around the world.

Scotiabank is paying a high price for its obese workers. In 2001, none of the top 10 prescription drugs covered by the bank was related to obesity. By 2007, the last year for which data is available, three of the top four medications were associated with obesity-type issues.

“Between 20 to 50 per cent of Canadian adults have weight problems, so by the very nature of having over 30,000 employees in Canada, we definitely extrapolate from that broader population,” says Laura Thanasse, senior vice-president of total rewards at Scotiabank.

It’s difficult to say how much obesity is costing the bank because overweight employees are also more likely to have other conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, she says. However, it’s enough to make Scotiabank take notice.

“Our overall HR strategy is having engaged employees. Having engaged employees means that we need healthy employees,” she says.

Scotiabank has introduced several initiatives to encourage its employees generally, and obese workers specifically, to improve their health. Among them, the bank offers discounted memberships at several national health clubs across the country. It has also implemented healthier menus at all of its corporate cafeterias and set nutritional guidelines for food served at work functions. That is not to say fatty or sugar-laden foods aren’t offered — they’re just not encouraged.

“What we first and foremost do is try to encourage the healthy,” she says. “(That means) fresh fruit, veggies, sandwiches on whole-grain bread and lower-fat sandwich fillings.”

Scotiabank also pays for nutritional counselling, dietitians or other forms of health coaching for employees with on-going health problems where obesity is a factor. The bank has also integrated its short- and long-term disability to ensure the obesity issue is addressed.

“What we’ve found is that both parties have an interest in getting healthy,” says Thanasse. “We want productive and engaged employees and most people do not want to be on disability.”

Obese workers are not singled out or penalized, as smokers sometimes are, in terms of disability pay or benefits, she says.

“There is a bit of a difference. Smoking is more of a conscious decision,” she says. “I wouldn’t say it’s a completely conscious decision because there is an addiction component with it but I don’t think people choose to be obese.”

To underscore its commitment to wellness, Scotiabank created a senior manager of wellness position a few years ago, within the HR department. This person is responsible for managing corporate wellness and ingraining healthy living into the bank’s culture.

Scotiabank also encourages its employees to look beyond weight. The bank has programs and policies aimed at a bias-free workplace, although it doesn’t specifically list obesity as a possible bias.

“One of the problems when you start to get down to words is that then you become exclusive just by default,” says Thanasse. “If you say, ‘We’re targeting our program to be bias-free’ — and then you list which biases — then you run the risk of not being inclusive.”

Robert Meggy
President and CEO
Great Little Box Company
This Vancouver-based box manufacturer has about 220 employees, 30 of whom are office workers, and the CEO is in charge of all strategic HR initiatives including wellness.

Being active, both physically and socially, is part of the culture at Great Little Box Company in Vancouver. And during the hiring process, which includes up to nine interviews, the company looks to hire people who fit into this culture, says Robert Meggy, president and CEO.

“People who didn’t go to social events didn’t last very long,” he says.

Just like physical activity, social events help employees reduce stress because co-workers become their friends, he adds.

At Great Little Box Company, many of the social events are also physical, such as annual participation in Vancouver’s 10-kilometre Sun Run, weekly volleyball matches between the office and plant staff, hiking, rafting and even a trip to Africa to hike Mount Kilimanjaro.

“People who are healthier are more productive, happier,” says Meggy. “When they start gaining weight, they don’t feel good about themselves.”

Two years ago the company built its new office and plant on an island in the middle of the Fraser River. There’s an on-site gym with more than $30,000 worth of equipment, a basketball court and beach volleyball court for the summer.

The gym is open seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and is completely free for employees to use, with about 20 per cent of employees doing so. Employees can also bring along a friend for free on the weekend, says Meggy.

Employees are also involved in running the gym. Two of them are in charge of maintaining the equipment and providing orientations to other employees and one employee, whom the company paid to become a personal trainer, gives two-and-a-half hours of training to employees every year.

The company encourages employees to make use of the gym by giving them points for every hour they spend there, which they can trade for prizes, such as Costco gift certificates, a television, a DVD player or clothing, such as a company hat.

Employees also encourage each other to use the gym, says Meggy. When employees notice a co-worker hasn’t been to the gym in a while or has put on some weight, they’re not afraid to encourage him to get active again, he says.

“It’s just part of our culture,” he says.

Meggy knows staying fit is about more than exercise — it’s also about nutrition. The company provides free fruit for employees every day and subscribes to a regular wellness newsletter, which is distributed to employees. During monthly meetings, Meggy talks up all the wellness activities as well as the social events such as the annual summer picnic.

“If you take more of an interest in people, people stay longer,” he says.

Al Ward
Vice-president of human resources
Staples Business Depot
The retailer, which employs 14,500 staff across the country, has its head office in Richmond Hill, Ont.

Staples Business Depot likes to focus on overall employee wellness and prevention instead of concentrating solely on helping employees lose weight, says Al Ward, vice-president of HR.

“We all recognize that obesity can be problematic in the aggregate sense in society, but it’s not causing us any particular issue and there’s no particular cost attached to it,” says Ward. “One of the counterbalances to obesity is preventative measures and a wellness in life and balance in your health, so we put our eggs in that basket and make investments in wellness that we anticipate would be beneficial for associates.”

Staples has a wellness committee that acts as an advisory board to senior management to identify the kinds of activities that would help employees. Employees from all business functions sit on the committee as well as an on-site advisor from Tri Fit, an Oakville, Ont.-based health and wellness provider. The committee is often included at internal business meetings to keep wellness a top-of-mind concern for the company.

“We work quite hard to keep it on the radar,” says Ward.

As part of its wellness initiatives, the company subsidizes employee memberships at the three-year-old on-site gym at head office. The monthly $22 fee is more affordable, and the gym more convenient for employees, than other fitness clubs and about one-half of the 400 home office employees are members.

For the past eight years, the company, through Tri fit, has been providing an online Get Fit at Home program to the more than 14,000 employees who work in retail stores across the country.

There’s also a wellness champion in each store, an employee who has an interest and experience in nutrition and exercise, who passes along corporate information on various wellness initiatives.

About 10 to 15 per cent of retail associates participate in the Get Fit at Home program and Staples is trying to encourage more to sign up and stay on track through regular updates to the website and newsletters. The company also sends fitness and healthy recipe ideas to the store wellness champions, who pass them along to staff.

“The key to success for us is the people who are on the ground in the stores doing their bit as well,” says Ward.

At one point, the company considered partnering with a private fitness club to give retail employees a discount, but that proved difficult because, depending on location, not all employees would have access to the same clubs, says Ward.

Staples is currently redesigning its benefits plan and is looking into whether it would be feasible, and advantageous, to allow employees to use some of their salary, tax-free, to join a gym, but employees must have the information they need to choose the best quality fitness facility.

“There are varying degrees of excellence. We want to make sure people are making a wise choice,” says Ward.

Staples also tries to make physical activity fun. Every September, the retailer hosts the “Wacky Olympics” at its head office, with events such as egg tosses and three-legged races.

“It’s just riotous good fun for everybody,” says Ward. “We understand that a balanced work-life is what it’s all about.”

Eat Smart, an Ontario-based awards program that recognizes workplaces that meet exceptional nutritional standards, recently recognized Staples’ Richmond Hill cafeteria for offering healthy food choices that promote good health. The company also hosts regular health fairs, with Tri Fit’s help, with booths providing information on healthy eating and physical activity.