A healthy workplace means recognizing stress is the enemy

Stress costs Canadian business $20 billion. How HR can approach wellness in the workplace.

The Canadian winter. Some love it and some hate it. For those who love it, it conjures up images of skiing, skating on frozen ponds and drinking hot chocolate in front of a fire. While for others it is four months of blizzards and freezing rain, shovelling driveways, trudging through the slush and hibernating indoors.

In the case of workplace wellness, winter in Canada seems to bring with it outbreaks of the flu, colds and other ailments that keep people in their homes and out of the office. The thought of winter makes many employees shudder at the thought of increased sick days and resulting productivity losses.

But why is so much concern placed on people suffering from the winter flu, while other issues are ignored? Health and wellness in the workplace is something that should be inherent within companies no matter what the season. Quite simply, the cost of doing business is expensive and the costs associated with servicing unhealthy employees are even more staggering.

In 1993, the Conference Board of Canada revealed that stress related problems alone cost Canadian business $12 billion. In 1999, this estimate increased to as much as $20 billion annually. The implementation of a well workforce can mean reduced health-care costs, lower insurance costs, increased attendance and improved employee morale.

Indeed, to survive in today’s business world, with its increasing pressures, cutbacks and inherent stressors, it is difficult for employees to remain physically and mentally healthy. In addition, individual employees have their own inherent genetic health issues, that need to be addressed. To combat this, companies need to offer individual health programs for their employees.

As part of an overall holistic approach, firms must assess the organizational well being of the company as well, starting with management practices and how they affect corporate health. The implementation of workplace wellness programs is one way to achieve this.

The Canadian Healthy Workplace Criteria, developed by The National Quality Institute and Health Canada, has adopted a holistic approach to workplace health that encompasses multiple aspects of an organization and its management practices. Currently an organization has four drivers that are essential to the development of a healthy workplace. These include:



•people focus; and

•process management.

Components of a “well” organization include effective communication and leadership, an integrated, strategic approach to organizational well-being and innovative initiatives to support employee wellness. This leads to decision latitude and the promotion of a corporate culture that encourages employees to take responsibility for their health so they can always be at their best.

A strong partnership between organizations and their workers can facilitate a healthy workplace culture and personal wellness at the office. The requirements of this partnership include: self-responsibility and empowered decision-making on the part of the employee, and support of the organization and its systems to enable individuals to make wellness a priority.

“Wellness is more than building a fitness facility for employees. It is about providing employees with the tools to give them control of their jobs,” notes Suzanne Fergusson, a corporate health and wellness specialist with Ottawa-based MDS Nordion.

Individual wellness is important, but what does that mean to the organization as a whole? Statistics show that organizations that place an emphasis on corporate wellness have:

•an improved corporate image;

•higher recruitment;

•improved productivity;

•reduced illness and disease; and

•reduced accidents and injuries.

Workplace wellness has a direct economic benefit to the organization that is realized through:

•reduced costs associated with employee absence and turnover;

•reduced injury and disability insurance costs;

•enhanced productivity or service; and

•enhanced organizational culture and image.

Being well means more than not being sick. Wellness is a state of mind or attitude more than it is physical symptoms. Wellness is personal responsibility for oneself that extends beyond the margins of non-sickness or regularity.

Causes of work-related stress include:

•poor organizational communication;

•lack of job control;

•conflict between work and family responsibilities;

•unrealistic expectations;

•conflicting demands;

•time pressure;

•work overload and discrimination; and

•harassment from peers.

The challenge with creating a healthy workplace is getting employees to value the offerings as more than “window dressing.” An HR manager’s seminars on work-life balance carry little weight when front-line managers cannot or will not ease up. The policies are often in place, but all too often those who need them the most do not practice them.

According to Linda Duxbury, a professor of business at Ottawa’s Carleton University, “data shows that despite the appearance of progress, almost all types of employees — men and women in all age groups — are experiencing more stress in the workplace than they were a decade ago.” The result? Burnout.

Research shows that when employees are faced with conditions of high demand and low control, or lots of effort with little reward, their health is negatively affected. In these situations, statistics demonstrate higher rates of cardiovascular disease, colds and flu, depression and drug/alcohol abuse. According to wellness expert Deborah Jones, president of the Health, Work & Wellness Institute of Canada, “many organizations are finding that employee and organizational health (attendance, morale, etc.) declines through periods of downsizing. Now the same companies are realizing that their employees are their most valuable asset and are focusing on an organizational approach to wellness.”

A healthy and well workplace is something that is easier said than done. To start with, organizations need to create a roadmap to get from point A to point B. For example, a five-step approach can be taken to assess organizational requirements and individual employee’s needs. This includes:

•employee surveys and audits to assess needs, stressors, etc.;

•task analysis to determine where changes need to be made.;

•development of training programs to address how to implement wellness into daily work life;

•rewarding leadership in communication and team building.; and

•promoting and rewarding balanced managers who have a heart for employees, who take into account the whole person — not just the employee factor.

This effectively translates into a healthy work environment and a healthy bottom line.

Making corporate wellness part of organizational planning is critical to an organization’s success. It can also be a bright ray of sunshine for your whole company.

Nikki Pavlov is the national human resources manager with J.D. Edwards Canada in Toronto. She can be reached at (416) 758-1328 or [email protected].

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