Serving up wellness

City of Richmond cast the net wide when it came to building its corporate wellness program

It’s a rare employer that offers lessons on guitar playing or bonsai gardening, but the City of Richmond in British Columbia does just that — and more — as part of its corporate wellness program. 

It wasn’t always that way. Fifteen years ago, when the program first started, the organization focused primarily on physical health. It was about containing health-care costs, reducing absenteeism, raising health awareness and making lifestyle behaviour modifications. 

Chief administrative officer George Duncan was really a champion of the program, says Alison Dennis, fitness and wellness services co-ordinator at the City of Richmond. And that was a key success factor — having support from the CAO and senior leadership team, with members participating in the programs alongside front-line staff, she says.

One of the first initiatives was a “Heart Health Fair,” in partnership with an outside organization, that included blood pressure and cholesterol checks, a healthy weight zone and nutrition stop. Employees were evaluated and then, after a 12-week program, assessed to see if there had been changes. 

There were also activities such as a lunchtime skate or swim, a barbecue and a wallyball league.

Since then, the program has blossomed into taking a holistic approach, tackling everything from stress resiliency to mental health awareness to physical health awareness, says Dennis.

“That’s part of its success — we said, ‘You know what, if we say wellness equals physical activity, we’re going to miss a lot of people, so how are we going to reach those people that maybe don’t identify themselves as somebody who wants to be part of a physical activity program?’” she says. 

“We really threw the net wide so that people started to identify, ‘Wow, the wellness program isn’t just all about physical activity and nutrition, I can see where I fit in.’

“It’s really equipping people with the tools and resources to be able to say, ‘How do I shift my perspective out of one that may be causing more stress to one that empowers them to make change?’ So it’s really focusing on that whole mental health well-being, both inside and outside the workplace.”

The city’s wellness program now tackles issues such as elder care, childcare, parenting a teenager, flu clinics and internal coaching. There are also lessons on photography, fly fishing, how to make sushi and how to play the ukulele. 

Back in 2010, with the Winter Olympics in town, the municipality held a six-week “Warmup to 2010” with teams of staff participating in activities loosely based on the Olympics, such as cross-country skiing with 12-foot wood planks.

“(They were) fun activities that combined all the elements of wellness — mind, body, spirit types of activities — and that’s really the pillars of all our programs,” says Dennis. 

“By doing these kinds of initiatives, our hope is that we keep our workforce healthy for a longer period of time and, hopefully, that turns into a longer-term employee in terms of not retiring as early as they might have decided they wanted to.”

There’s also an in-house gym, with about 300 of the organization’s 1,700 employees registered, along with 50 to 75 people who are registered to use community centres. 

And the city did a survey of anyone who participated in the wellness programs to identify future endeavours, she says.

“My philosophy is that it’s not my wellness program, it’s their wellness program — I’m just here to connect them with the opportunities that they’re looking for.”

The program enjoys strong participation, largely because of convenience, employee input and topical, relevant initiatives.

“It’s really making it employee-centred as opposed to us saying, ‘Well, I think this is what we should do’ — what do the staff want? So I think that’s a big piece of it,” says Dennis. “And creating the opportunities that the research is also saying are important factors to the general population, so things around elder care.”

Return on investment
Years ago, when the city first started the program, it looked to private sector employers with wellness initiatives and found those that measured the return on investment were more likely to keep the program going when budgets were cut, says Dennis.
So all the city’s programs have metrics around them, be they informal or formal.

“Part of the reason that organizations are questioning their return on investment is many of the wellness programs are not putting metrics in place to be able to measure, so how can they tell the story?” she says.

There are several indicators Dennis looks at. For example, if there’s a 12-week program, it’s about looking at whether people form habits within the time frame because if they do, there’s greater likelihood they will stay active post-program, she says. As a result, the city does before and after measurements to look for improvements in physical activities and physiological health parameters.

“To me, that’s success if they’re taking the information and doing something with it, then we’re being successful in implementing a change and a shift in the perspectives on a healthy lifestyle,” says Dennis.

“We know from the literature that when these parameters are improved, it translates into decreased benefit costs, decreased sick time, increased productivity, decreased presenteeism, so we kind of combine homegrown stats with what the literature is saying, and then we’re able to tell the story.”

And while smaller organizations may be concerned about the costs of a health and wellness program, there are options. The services at the City of Richmond are provided at little to no cost, says Dennis, adding it’s about leveraging community relationships with groups such as the Heart and Stroke Foundation. 

The city also asks staff to share any special skills they have, which led to the lessons on fly fishing and guitar playing, she says.
“It also creates an opportunity for staff to strut their stuff.”

And the support of HR is key, says Dennis.

“Being embedded within the human resources department also allows me the opportunity to work with a variety of different portfolio managers that say, ‘Wow, we’re having a real issue with this in our department, can you help us out or connect us with some information that we can share with the management team of that area?’ So even having that level of embracing of the program through the HR department has really helped as well.”

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