The numbers are in and they paint a clear picture: Four in five Canadian workers expect their employer to help support their physical and psychological health, according to a study by Sun Life Financial.
Far from being a “nice to have,” health and wellness initiatives are expected of employers — and they can be a competitive differentiator, said Lori Casselman, assistant vice-president of integrated health solutions at Sun Life Financial in Toronto.
Those results, while perhaps not surprising, are certainly striking, said Kevin Dougherty, president of Sun Life.
“Eighty-four per cent of Canadians say that employers are responsible for supporting their employees’ physical health and that 86 per cent feel the same way when asked about psychological health,” he said.
Generation Y or millennials in particular feel employers have a key role to play in supporting their health and wellness, found the study of 2,404 Canadians between the ages of 18 and 80.
“The one age group that really stood out for us was gen Y — they really feel that there’s a significant role for the employer in supporting their health,” he said.
That finding is particularly significant for employers that will face a workforce increasingly made up of millennial workers, said Casselman — and the quality of health and wellness support will certainly impact recruitment and retention.
In fact, nearly two in five millennials (38 per cent) feel employers are responsible for supporting their physical health, while 37 per cent feel employers are responsible for supporting their psychological health. This was the highest proportion of any age group, said Casselman.
And more than one-third of Canadians, or 35 per cent, said their physical or mental health had negatively impacted their productivity at work in the last six months, found the study.
Gen Y respondents were most likely to report that experience: 47 per cent said their health had negatively impacted their work productivity in the last six months, compared with 30 per cent of late boomers and 26 per cent of early boomers.
“There’s also a huge connection between employee engagement and wellness programs in the workplace. We’re seeing employers across the country embracing wellness because of the connection to employee engagement,” said Dougherty.
Wellness is recognized more and more as a differentiator for employers. It’s not just something nice to offer, it’s a benefit
employees would consider before choosing an employer, said Karley Middleton, wellness consultant at HUB International STRATA Benefits Consulting in Winnipeg.
“When it comes down to it, compensation can be negotiated and benefits can be matched, but knowing that your employer actually cares about you is a differentiator for employees now,” she said.
“Employers are starting to realize — either legislatively or just through competing for employees — they’re starting to realize that they do play a big role and they need to be responsible.”
So how much responsibility should employers take on?
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they need to be responsible for their employees’ health, but they need to be responsible for giving the employees every possible opportunity to improve their health. It’s more about giving the employees access to resources, promoting a work-life balance that allows them the freedom to explore those resources, and really just putting everything out there possible so that the employee takes ownership and accountability because really, in the end, it has to be that individual effort that really changes their behaviour,” said Middleton.
Whether they’re doing it because of legislation or because they’re competing for employees — or because it’s their culture to care about employees — it will have an impact, said Middleton.
“Whatever the reason is, I think (employers) are starting to recognize that their role is much bigger than they anticipated initially, and that it’s not as difficult to fulfill as some think.”
It doesn’t mean employers need to dictate the details, said Michelle Johnston, employee wellness expert and founder of Working Well in Toronto.
“Do employers owe the employee a responsibility to tell them what to have for a healthy lunch or how to be more fit? Maybe not. But working in 2015 is extremely stressful — there are a lot of pressures put on families and put on individuals, and there’s a lot of stress that comes from work.”
Most Canadians are now living with an uncomfortable level of daily stress in their lives, she said. Work is really stressful and employees do feel something needs to be done.
“But we’re also talking about the ability to have the time to care for yourself, so stress and nutrition are two things that tie in there. People don’t take the time away to go have lunch, so they’re not actually even nourishing themselves.
“There is a responsibility for the employer to provide an environment in a workplace that allows people to take care of themselves. Right now, there’s just no space for that. There’s been no space created for that.”
So how can employers integrate health and wellness into their own workplace — without breaking the bank? For the most part, innovative health solutions arise in response to a common problem, said Middleton.
“In my experience, a very common issue in terms of putting in place a wellness program is budget. It’s never quite recognized on its own, it either needs to be incorporated into benefits or some other initiative that’s going on. So it doesn’t tend to get as much financial support,” she said.
“We’re trying to find ways without using high budget dollars that you can still get some impact.”
Employers can also find innovative wellness solutions by simply communicating with employees to find out their priorities, said Johnson.
“Engaging their employees, asking what their employees really want is probably number one. A lot of times, assumptions are made or just a simple survey is done, which is a very one-dimensional approach. So they might have contests where they ask people to submit ideas or they might do focus groups to get the employees’ information. That’s really where the innovation comes in, because that’s where the idea meets the need really well. And it’s not just an idea being created in a silo,” she said.
“Innovation really happens when employees are allowed to kind of voice their opinion around what they want.”
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