Nutrition programs popular with employers

Healthy food, educational programs, coaching most common initiatives: Survey
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/09/2013

Employees at Total E&P Canada in Calgary have a range of healthy food options during on-site meetings, including wraps, fruit and salads, according to Christin Bell, health and safety co-ordinator.

The energy company is also conscious about dietary restrictions and ensures it has gluten-free and dairy-free options available.

“A lot of people when they go to meetings just get a sandwich and we looked at how we could make that healthier, so getting a wrap instead and getting more simple ingredients,” she said.

“There is so much catering ordered that if people are always eating the same thing, it can really impact their health.”

Since administrative assistants are usually responsible for the catering, the company gave them an education session about what kinds of healthy options to order.

Total E&P, which has 350 employees, also regularly sends fresh fruit baskets to the workplace as part of its nutrition program.

“It’s just a visual reminder if you’re hungry, grab a piece of fruit versus maybe going downstairs to get something less healthy,” said Bell. “Employees love it, they love fruit day.”

Nearly two-thirds (65 per cent) of employers across Canada have nutrition initiatives in place, according to a report by the Conference Board of Canada, which surveyed 60 employers.

“I’d say that was very good but I think we can do better because it is one of the initiatives that can be done quite easily by employers — it’s one of the first ones that gets tackled with a wellness program,” said Louise Chénier, research associate at the Conference Board in Ottawa and author of the report.

“The fact that a third of them are not even concerned if their food options are healthy is a bit of a concern.”

Nearly two-thirds (62.1 per cent) of Canadian adults are overweight or obese, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. Obesity is one of the most important risk factors for many chronic illnesses, including heart disease, hypertension and Type 2 diabetes, which can contribute to lower labour productivity and increases in work absences, said the report.

Employers have a primary role to play in helping employees combat obesity and stay healthy, said Chénier.

“Most adults spend at least eight hours of their day at the workplace… and the work we do now is different than it used to be. People are staying in front of their computers, they’re not walking like they used to, we’re doing a lot less physical work than we used to and it’s part of the reason, I think, that we’re seeing a rise in obesity,” she said.

Healthy food options

The most common nutrition initiative offered among Canadian companies is healthy selections for on-site cafeterias, according to 52 per cent of the survey respondents. An employer can simply tell its food services provider to follow Canada’s Food Guide and if the healthy options are more expensive for employees, some employers subsidize that, said Chénier.

“Some organizations actually have written guidelines so anyone who offers food in their establishment must follow certain criteria. That doesn’t mean they don’t offer fries once and awhile or pizza, but there has to be an option that’s labelled as being the better option and why is that so,” she said.

The second most popular nutrition initiative is offering healthy selections for on-site catered meetings (50 per cent). Many employers use this tactic to ensure the food served in meetings in consistent with their culture and brand, according to Karen Rasmussen, vice-president of Well Street in Toronto.

“Because they have a wellness program and wellness initiatives, certainly bringing in pizza doesn’t bode well with their philosophy,” she said. “It’s really fantastic to see (employers taking) more of a holistic approach, encompassing nutrition.”

Education a popular offering

Educational programs on nutrition — such as on-site seminars, lunch-and-learns and webinars — tied for the third most popular nutrition initiative, at 47 per cent. Total E&P has partnered with Simply For Life and its nutrition program which is all about educating employees on how to make healthy choices, said Bell.

To kick off the partnership in late 2011, Simply For Life hosted an educational cooking demonstration at the workplace. It also holds nutrition-related lunch-and-learns for employees, such as how to make your own lunch for work, said Bell.

Employers should take advantage of the nutrition education sessions offered through their employee assistance program (EAP) provider or public agencies such as the Heart and Stroke Foundation, said Chénier.

Coaching, counselling

Health coaching and counselling also tied for the third most popular nutrition initiative (47 per cent), found the report.

“They offer resources, healthy menus and emotional support as well because a lot of times, the diet is not an easy one,” said Chénier.

“People are not aware of how much fat, sugar and salt is in everything… so it’s really useful for the employee to have that direct one-on-one.”

Total E&P employees that sign up for the Simply For Life program receive weekly one-on-one sessions with a nutritionist who comes to the workplace.

Challenges common

Healthy living challenges took the fourth spot on the list of most popular nutrition initiatives, with 38 per cent of firms offering such challenges. Corporate challenges have been growing in popularity over the last few years and they are very motivational for employees, said Rasmussen.

“The client feedback is they cannot believe it, they are so amazed by the incredible productivity that comes out of it, they are enthused to be in a group, they’re inspired by others,” she said.

Total E&P partners with Simply For Life to offer a 12-week nutrition challenge. Participating employees are encouraged to follow a customized meal plan for a three-month period. They are provided with a weekly meal planner and grocery list. About 60 employees have participated in the challenge, said Bell.

Employees who work remotely at the company’s Fort McMurray, Alta., site are also able to participate over the phone or online. Some employees reported losing up to 15 pounds during the three-month challenge.

“It’s neat to see everyone learn and then discuss it; they’re so excited. It’s simple things that you never really think about and I think it makes a big impact,” said Bell. “People are saying they have more energy and it’s great to see they got so excited and just ran with it.”

Costs, ROI less well-known

Only one-third of organizations are aware of the overall cost of their nutrition initiatives, found the report. While it varies greatly, organizations most commonly spend $5,000 annually on their nutrition programs. This usually accounts for between 10 per cent and 30 per cent of an organization’s wellness budget.

And the benefits greatly outweigh the expense, according to Rasmussen.

“The cost of unproductive employees and dependence on pharmaceutical medication, what’s the cost of that? When you measure the effectiveness of the cost of these programs versus the cost of a sick workforce, the proof is there,” she said.

Only 41 per cent of employers measure the impact of their nutrition-related initiatives, found the report. Total E&P measures the effectiveness of its programs through employee participation, reports from Simply For Life and employee surveys. In total, one-third (32 per cent) of employees at the company participate in nutrition initiatives, said Bell.

“Employee participation and satisfaction, those are critical to measure. Even if you have more advanced programs and are doing other metrics, those are very important because they let you know if employees are engaged in your program or not,” said Chénier. “You might not be offering the program the employee needs… it might be time to tweak it.”

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