Wellness isn’t just about gym memberships

Workplace wellness ‘an engagement solution more than a health solution’
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/10/2016

Providing some sort of wellness benefit is pretty much par for the course among top employers these days — the challenge is finding the most effective way to get employees engaged.

Providing a gym membership, fitness allowance or any other passive source of support for employee wellness is a great idea, says Jackie Riley, principal at Riley Wellness Consulting in Toronto. 

“Employers need to know that, on the spectrum of everything that they can do, doing something is always better than doing nothing.” 

If an employer is providing gym memberships, it deserves kudos for that — but that in isolation may not provide the most bang for the buck, says Riley. 

“For workplace wellness to really have some teeth, to really marry up with engagement in a meaningful way, providing for workplace wellness to occur while at work and walking hand in hand with other engagement strategies is really important.”

Unlike the United States where workplace wellness is looked at as a solution to health insurance costs, Canada is not looking through exactly that lens, says Riley. 

“But what I’m seeing more and more now is workplace wellness really being an engagement solution, even more than a health solution. And because it’s an engagement solution, because it marries with an entire engagement strategy, it has to happen in the workplace.”

Usually with a wellness program, the objective is to increase the well-being of the employee, to increase participation, energy and loyalty to the company, says Katrina DeAngelis, workplace wellness consultant in Toronto. 

“The problem with giving them, let’s say, an allowance for a gym membership… (is) they’re still spending the money on it but the results are not the same,” she says. 

“The positive to having (health initiatives) during the workday or even in the workplace… is that they’re getting the results because people can actually use them — and the employer is still spending likely the same amount of money on it. And the added benefit is after the workout or after the workshop, motivation is likely to increase, and then they’re going back to work and their productivity is going to increase as well.

“Out-of-house exercise programs, the return on investment is not going to be the same... In-house, they’re likely to use it and it’s more of a wellness initiative rather than just an added benefit (they may or may not use).”

Wellness and success go hand in hand, says Jordan Cieciwa, regional manager at Bridges Health in Winnipeg. 

“If you want employees that are able to show you their best, they have to be (healthy).”

Incorporating walking into the workday, learning the basics of yoga, stretching, learning how to breathe, to relax are all great steps employees can take — and employers can encourage that. 

“It’s undoing the day sitting in front of a computer, it’s undoing those repetitive motions… so you get the stress relief from that,” says Cieciwa. “It is not the employer’s responsibility to make sure you’re fit — that’s you after and around after work, but it is your employer’s responsibility to make sure you are healthy.”

And employers need to think about mental wellness as well, he says. 

“From a mental health standpoint, employees (should be) allowed to walk away from their desk. You should feel that you can walk away from any job that you’re doing — safely — in order to de-stress,” he says. “Manufacturing jobs aside, there shouldn’t be anything in this world that we feel strapped to in the sense that if we step away for even a second, the whole thing falls apart.”

Creating a wellness culture

A few years ago, employers started to bring in boot camps and workout programs, but what they really need is a different culture, says Cieciwa. 

“Culture is everything when it comes to wellness, and I believe that’s been the thing that’s been missed. We’ve got too many people who are trying to solve the problem with programs… all that needs to change is the culture of the business,” he says. 

Some of these programs have the unintended consequence of preaching to the choir — the only uptake is by the employees who are already fit.

“I’m healthy. I’m not the issue. I’m not the person who’s going to take 27 sick days this year because of health issues… so giving me more benefits doesn’t really do anything. It just makes me healthier, and that person who’s (not as fit) feels more alienated,” he says. “What we’re doing is creating a bigger gap.”

People spend most of their time at work, if they work in a bricks and mortar workplace. So it’s the location where they have the best opportunity to live well because it’s most of their day, says Riley. 

“Seeing your colleagues, both those that you support if you happen to be a manager or those that support you if you are managed by someone, seeing everyone engage somehow in workplace wellness is really important — and probably more important than throwing money at a gym membership that may or may not get used outside business hours,” she says. 

It’s about the triple win: How’s it going to be great for the employer, employee and the wider community? One program, for example, saw the employer arrange for staff to walk dogs from a nearby animal shelter during lunch, says Riley. 

“It really brought people together over a common love for animals. With something like that, it doesn’t have to be difficult to integrate workplace wellness opportunities into the day,” she says. 

“It can be really, really simple. And I think providing time for it doesn’t necessarily have to be new time. People have x number of minutes for lunch and x number of minutes for breaks in a day, so there doesn’t have to be new time above and beyond what’s already legislated for, what’s already customary in that workplace. It can be integrated into what that workplace culture already sees as customary for a break.”

When you’re creating a corporate culture, it’s so important to integrate the wellness aspect of it, says DeAngelis. 

“And when people think wellness, they think a lot of the time, ‘gym.’ But it’s more than that. It’s about creating a culture that allows you to be creative and allows you to take that time out of your busy day and not think, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t have time to go meditate for 15 minutes’ or ‘I don’t have time to go do yoga.’ It’s about creating a culture that encourages it.”

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