Creating a culture of wellness

How two organizations created, and maintain, healthy working environments

As the average age of Canadian workers climbs to record-high levels over the next decade, many organizations will have to fine-tune what they’re doing with healthy workplace programs to meet the needs of aging employees.

According to Statistics Canada, the median age of the working population will hit 43.7 years by 2011, up from the current level of 41.3 years and a significant jump from the early 1980s when it stood at 36.5 years.

With this in mind, Canadian HR Reporter approached MDS Nordion and Husky Injection Moulding Systems Ltd. — two organizations with innovative healthy workplace programs — to see what they’re doing now and how they think the programs might evolve in the years ahead.

MDS Nordion

Comic-strip icon Dilbert wouldn’t fit in very well with many of the engineers at MDS Nordion’s corporate headquarters in Kanata, Ont. That’s because they spend their lunch doing something a stereotypical engineer like Dilbert wouldn’t — playing volleyball. They used to spend lunch playing bridge, but that changed when the engineers approached Suzanne Fergusson, manager of health and well-being for MDS Nordion, about getting a volleyball net.

It’s just one example of how the company’s holistic approach to a healthy workplace is paying off and changing behaviour. The key is maintaining a healthy environment and culture for individuals to thrive in, said Fergusson.

“It doesn’t matter if you run 20 miles and you’re a crunchy-granola type,” she said. “If you work for a jerk, and you don’t have any say in how your job is done, you cannot be well.”

She was hired 12 years ago with the mandate to develop a wellness program as the company moved from the public to the private sector. The first step was to not just teach leaders the words of what the new corporate culture would be, but to ensure their behaviour reflected that culture so employees could embrace it. Part of the regimen included diversity training with a twist.

“It wasn’t simply a matter of race, colour and creed,” said Fergusson. “This was more of an understanding of recognizing differences in people. We all have different work methods and we all get the job done in different ways, so we needed to respect that.”

Once the social environment was set, MDS Nordion rolled out some of the typical features of a healthy workplace, but made sure it talked to staff about what their needs and wants were before they just dropped in things like a fitness centre.

“We asked them if they would support a fitness centre. And, if so, would they sign on the dotted line in advance of us doing anything to commit,” said Fergusson.

The company hoped to get 25 per cent of its 800 staff at corporate headquarters to sign up. It met that target, the fitness centre was put in, and now 38 per cent of the employees have memberships.

Another sign the program is working comes from the lunchroom. In one building alone, workers used to gobble-down 55 pounds of french fries every day. That number has fallen to just five pounds.

“It’s not like we’ve taken the fries away, they’re still there,” said Fergusson. “But they have other choices and they make those choices on their own.”

The company has 21 hectares of land complete with a hockey rink, soccer field and baseball diamond — all of which hum with activity. That’s a big contrast to what used to go on at the company.

“People came to work in the morning and they left in the evening and I really didn’t see a whole lot of activity outside work,” she said.

The first year she was at MDS Nordion, she was the only female staff member who participated in a 10-kilometre run sponsored by the company. Last year, there were 137 female staffers in the race — something Fergusson said is an indication of changing norms.

The company used to offer a fitness reimbursement program, but has expanded it and changed the name to a health and well-being reimbursement program. Employees can get things like weight management, golf memberships and ski programs subsidized by 50 per cent to a maximum of $150 per year.

Looking forward. Fergusson said MDS Nordion is ready to handle changing demographics in the workplace. The HR team has been positioned so it is an integral part of business planning and the different business units and, therefore, will have a much better understanding of what the different needs will be in the future.

“Our present challenges are on building leadership capability, attraction, retention and work-life balance,” she said. “Five years from now, we’re going to be dealing more with the aging workforce and skills shortages and we’re pretty comfortable that we’re well positioned to be able to meet those challenges.”

The organization recently launched an intranet site on work-life balance and augmented its flex time, compressed workweek and telework programs.

Husky Injection Moulding Systems Ltd.

A trip to the cafeteria at the Bolton, Ont. headquarters of Husky Injection Moulding Systems Ltd. provides a perfect example of what its healthy workplace program is all about. If one of the 1,300 workers at corporate headquarters grabs a vegetarian meal, it’ll cost about $1.50 less than other meals because it’s subsidized by the company.

That’s just one facet of a comprehensive program that David Doull, director wellness for Husky, said is driven from the highest echelon of the organization. The programs are in place not because they save money, but because they’re near and dear to Husky president and CEO Robert Schad’s heart.

“He lives what he preaches and what he provides, so he believes that by providing services for people to make healthier choices, they’re better employees and better people because of it,” said Doull.

There are three main parts to Husky’s healthy workplace program:

Wellness centre. An on-site medical facility treats occupational and non-occupational health-care concerns. Medical staff help employees who are injured, whether it’s a chiropractor helping alleviate back pain caused on the job or a physiotherapist treating a knee injury that occurred on the weekend while playing sports.

“It’s just like going to your doctor’s office, but it just happens to be at work,” he said.

The facility, open Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., is busy. In 2001, it had 7,900 patient visits and last year took in another 7,600.

Most of the services offered at the wellness centre aren’t covered by Ontario’s health-care system. The tab is picked up either by Husky’s benefit plan or the company itself.

Doull said the company used to have a family physician on-site for routine medical problems covered by the provincial system.

In the future, he’s hoping they can get another family doctor on-site.

Fitness centre. The fitness centre is open 24 hours and a full-time fitness co-ordinator helps employees with program development. The company also offers workers an extra vacation day every year if they commit to physical fitness and have an annual health exam with their doctor.

Nutrition program. In addition to subsidizing vegetarian meals, all the food served in the cafeteria is low fat — no deep-frying or oils — and the only meats available are fish and poultry.

Pop is available, but nothing with aspartame, and there are no doughnuts in sight. The company also holds monthly lunch-and-learn sessions on nutrition to promote healthy eating.

Doull said the program is showing measurable results.

“Our absenteeism and drug costs are definitely lower than industry standards,” he said. And the company received a rebate of nearly $500,000 from Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board this year.

Looking forward. Doull said the best thing the company can do for the aging workforce is to stay in close touch with them, listen and develop programs as the need arises.

“We’re listening to the practitioners and the people as far as what are their concerns in coming to the wellness centre,” he said.

For example, Doull noticed an increase in back injuries and the wellness centre is treating a lot of back complaints, so he’s looking at developing a back-care program so staff can do something for themselves to prevent or help manage back pain.

Ultimately, though, all the company can do is educate workers around wellness and it’s up to employees to take advantage of what is being offered.

“That’s one of the biggest challenges, getting someone to accept the responsibility and become active in their health care,” he said. “Certain people are very passive, they’re looking for a quick fix such as a pill or a prescription to happiness and healthiness. But it doesn’t exist. It takes work.”

And while getting younger workers on board early in their careers is easier, it’s still possible to teach an old dog new tricks, he said.

“A 60-year-old who has a heart attack can definitely realize after they recover, ‘Man, I made some really bad choices,’ and that could just be the impetus they need to start up a cardio program and change their eating habits,” said Doull. “It’s a unique and individual thing, but as a corporation you listen to what your workers need and provide them resources so they can make choices.”

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