Investing in wellness

While wellness has quickly worked it’s way onto the radar of most HR departments in the past couple of years, rising levels of absenteeism suggest more can still be done. Canada still lags behind the United States in corporate wellness and a number of companies still don’t believe wellness is worthwhile.

But there is also a growing number of businesses who are getting serious about wellness and are committing time, energy and resources to the programs.

Telus about wellness

Western Canada’s TELUS is one of those companies.

In 1999, TELUS was awarded the Healthy Workplace Trophy for its commitment to create a “well” workplace by the National Quality Institute.

“We measure what we do so we can demonstrate a return to the organization,” says Sharon Blaney, director of corporate health for TELUS.

And their wellness programs have proven to have a very positive effect on the corporate bottom-line.

“We track reasons for absences that are greater than five or six days,” she says. In 1995 they observed an increasing number of employees were away due to respiratory illness. In response they introduced a flu immunization program that considerably reduced the number of absences. Before the program, 31 per cent of all absences were due to respiratory illness; that number dropped to 22 per cent after introducing the program. Similarly, fitness programs available at most of their sites have reduced absence rates by about 28 per cent.


TELUS also has an ergonomic program for repetitive strain injuries (RSI). Aside from ensuring the little things are in place, like good air circulation and minimized glare on computer screens, TELUS has two ergonomists on staff who work with employees either directly or through “train- the-trainer” programs to ensure they are using equipment properly and appropriately: how to adjust the chair so the keyboard is at the right height, for example.

Sit-to-stand work-stations allow employees to work as effectively standing as they could be sitting. Most of the staff in the operator services department have the option of working on their feet by pushing a button and the entire work-station rises up to the appropriate position for an employee.
Changes like these, enacted after a work station assessment, have reduced incidents of RSI by more than half among TELUS’ operator services department staff, says Blaney.

Well-rounded wellness programs

Wellness programs encompass much more than just physical health these days. When they first started to creep into the corporate mindset, health promotion programs were primarily focused on the physical fitness aspect of health. Programs usually included a discounted membership fee to a fitness centre for employees.

Today, corporations are taking a more holistic approach to wellness.

B.C. Hydro is a prime example of that paradigm shift. The company was one of the first Canadian employers to implement wellness initiatives back in 1989, starting with two fitness centres in Vancouver.

“There has definitely been a shift. The focus used to be on physical activity. From there it has grown into a holistic model, where we touch on the physical, social and psychological well-being of the individual,” says Shirley Sung, health promotion manager at B.C. Hydro.

Hydro’s Lifestyle Program includes an assortment of initiatives, from health workshops to incentive-recognition programs for family participation and improvements in health.

Eighty per cent of B.C. Hydro employees are enrolled in the incentive-recognition program, with half of those members actively participating, says Sung.

The program operates on a system where employees accumulate points for family activities or for reaching a health-improvement goal, like weight loss or smoking cessation. “We take the approach that we are going to add value to the corporation. Our targets are those employees who are having difficulties making those healthy changes,” says Sung.

Stress factor

TELUS is also cognizant of the subtle impacts employees can suffer from stress and other pyschological burdens.

The Vancouver area has been beset by a high-rate of Hepatitis A and B infection and in some parts of town pay phones have become common receptacles for used syringes. Employees responsible for maintaining those phone booths became concerned they were at risk of infection. And though the risk was not great, TELUS decided it was still worthwhile to introduce an immunization program.

Since introducing the program about two-thirds of employees opted to take the extra precaution allaying some fears and eliminating the risk of infection.

Change has also been well-documented as a major stressor for employees and TELUS is still trying to deal with the 1999 merger of Alberta-based TELUS Corporation and B.C.-based BC TELECOM.

Workbooks, videos and computer programs on managing stress teach employees to approach change from a positive point of view — that the sky is not falling, Blaney says — and that steps can be taken to improve their health and feel better about themselves.

The workbooks were so successful they have been bought by other organizations and TELUS plans to put them online to improve interaction rate.

Computer programs available on disk help employees manage their stress by providing quick and easy advice for coping strategies. An employee will be able to answer questions about their lifestyle and health, enter problems and how they relax and steps for improvement are fed back to the user from the computer.

In the B.C. wing of the operation, where the stress programs have been in place the longest, 11 per cent of absences of more than five days were due to stress, while in the Alberta arm, stress caused about 30 per cent of those absences.

Tangible rewards

Like TELUS, B.C. Hydro keeps a tally of the tangible benefits of their wellness initiatives. In a “conservative” cost-benefit analysis of the incentive program, Sung says every dollar spent equalled a $2.70 benefit to the company.

Tracking the benefits, she says, helps keep management on board. “The movement of health promotion started with fitness and they didn’t understand how to show the business how important they were. You have to be able to show the value (of wellness programs) to your organization. It’s the bottom line.”


The key to keeping wellness programs in line with what employees need, and in particular the needs of a younger workforce, is having a staff qualified and experienced to deliver those programs.

To that end, starting next month health and wellness advisors will be hired in B.C. Hydro’s health promotion department.

In addition to the communications, business and marketing skills needed for the job, the advisors will also need to be qualified in behaviour modification and change management. Sung says advisors will also have to have a high level of interpersonal skills in order to effectively administer one-on-one programs expected to be incorporated into programs in the coming months.

“Organizations are really starting to change. Younger generations are looking for an organization that is going to meet their life needs and not only their work-life needs,” says Sung.

With a full-time staff of eight including Sung, and a budget that averages out to $145 per employee, Sung says the biggest challenge facing health promotion is maintaining communication with employees. With a diverse employee base of 6,000 people spread across the province, Sung says local managers and 220 lifestyle employee representatives have played a vital role in the awareness and delivery of wellness programs. These employee representatives connect the employees at the local end to health promotion co-ordinators helping to ensure their programs reflect what the employees want and need.

“The reps at the local level are the real champions of the program. They are the passionate people who address the needs and have been absolutely critical to our success. It’s becoming a part of the Hydro culture to meet the demands of the individual employee,” says Sung.

Giant takes baby steps on wellness

The call to action on wellness came right from the top at the giant Magna International Inc. It was on the recommendation of founder and chair of Magna, Frank Stronach that a pilot wellness program was tested in 1997.

The project went company-wide in Canada the year after and spread to the U.S. divisions in 1999.

With some 30,000 employees in North America and a total of 59,000 employees worldwide, the greatest challenge for the health promotion co-ordinators and supervisors has been administration, says health promotion co-ordinator Mike Kennedy.

While still in its infancy, the approach has been to focus on education and awareness with a plan to move toward a direct intervention approach.

“Every program has to start at basic education. We really view this as the first phase or two of the program. We are going from that basic education awareness towards that intervention, knowing we have a few steps to take.”

To accommodate the sheer numbers and diversity of ethnic cultures represented in the 100 North American plants, educational programs and presentations are tailored to meet employee and plant needs.

“We also learned that we had to make it accessible. We have to be very conscious of that,” says Kennedy.

Using powerpoint presentations, distributing handouts and ensuring instructors are easily understood by employees, are all techniques that led to an increase in participation and have ultimately served to keep employees interested.

“We learned a few things right off the bat. We learned that if you don’t keep employees interested they are not going to listen. We have taken the time to invest in the delivery of our programs.”

Health educators host presentations every other month for employees on employer time. Topics range from how to include fitness into busy lives to heart disease prevention and monitoring.

In the month between, clinics related to the topic of the presentation held the month earlier, are set up in individual plants. The clinics are a more one-on-one activity where employees can sit down with health advisors to discuss a particular health concern or, depending on the topic of the clinic, have their blood pressure measured or their blood screened for signs of an ulcer for example. On average, 50 per cent of employees use the clinics and for some of their more popular clinics, such as the RSI clinic, that figure jumps to 70 per cent participation.

“The program is balanced between public health education and clinics,” says Kennedy.

Another part of Magna’s program is a biweekly health newsletter which is sent to all North American employees and is filled with current health research and tips. The issue also features an employee who has shown health improvement.

Employees are also encouraged to bring their concerns forward so they can be addressed by health promotion co-ordinators. The Green Sticker program was born from that process two years ago, says Kennedy. When employees started complaining about the food being sold in vending machines, health promotion co-ordinators worked with vendors to put green stickers on the healthier items being sold.

“We moderate the process for employees.”

Wellness programs are offered at all plants but it’s up to managers to request the presentations and clinics. About 85 to 90 per cent of North American plants now participate in the program, says Kennedy.

“Those managers who have believed in it from the beginning have understood that it pays to invest in your employees. Luckily our success at each plant has spread through so the late adopters are now calling us.”

Magna spends $23 per employee for its health promotion initiatives and staffs a health centre of 11, with four employees directly working on health promotion. Staff also travels to U.S. plants to train instructors who are contracted to administer presentations and clinics at those plants.

“It’s Magna’s commitment to employees that it not only complies with health and safety regulations but that it is healthful.”

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