Unions, management see wellness through different prisms

Suspicion about employer’s motives hold back union support

Think of a wellness program, and an image of workers in gym clothes out together for a walk might come to mind. Or it’s a roomful of employees learning from the experts how to eat right, monitor their hearts or quit bad habits.

Many people see in these images a picture of good health. The way Lydia Makrides puts it, it should be a slam-dunk for unions to support such programs.

“The unions are there to look after the well-being of their employees. So they can’t possibly be against anything that helps their members become healthy,” said Makrides, director of the Atlantic Health and Wellness Institute, a Halifax-based wellness provider.

But the view from the union’s side isn’t as rosy. Despite being vigilant advocates for health and safety, many union leaders are at best grudgingly silent on wellness programs. At worst, some even oppose them outright.

Part of the blame, said Makrides, has to fall on wellness providers such as herself.

“What happens is when we approach the employer, the union is often ignored. The union finds out (about the initiative) after the fact, and therefore there’s no buy-in.”

And because program providers often emphasize the business case to pitch wellness to employers, it’s natural for unions to take from that message: The employer is doing this to save money. This is not about employees.

Now, “Is the union on board?” is one of the first questions Makrides asks when an employer brings her in to implement wellness initiatives. “I’ve learned from my previous experiences.” In her current project to measure health outcomes over four years at the Nova Scotia Department of Justice, that crucial question led to the inclusion of a Nova Scotia Government Employee Union representative on the steering committee.

Rory Hancey, manager of labour relations at the Department of Justice, said one of the biggest concerns the union had was that workers’ health information being gathered and tracked would be used in connection to attendance management.

With that concern addressed, the union has expressed just as much interest as the employer in seeing health costs reduced as a long-term outcome of the project, said Hancey.

The failure of many employers to consult with unions and representatives of joint health and safety committees is indeed one of the reasons some unions don’t support wellness programs, said Denis St-Jean, national health and safety officer at the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

But on a deeper level, there’s the enduring suspicion unions have that employers are bringing in wellness programs for the wrong reasons, said St-Jean.

“As far as the union is concerned, most CEOs or senior managers don’t see employee health as a huge issue,” said St-Jean. Pointing to the prevalence of contract, part-time and seasonal employees within the federal public service, he said, “if one of them becomes ill, that person is weeded out of the system anyway.”

Wellness programs often appear at a workplace almost as an afterthought, said St-Jean. They’re usually brought in on the heel of other cost containment measures, such as greater monitoring of absenteeism, reduction of drug plans, and increased appeals of workers’ compensation claims, said St-Jean.

“During the recent negotiation (at Canada Post) there was a reduction in prescription drug payment,” said St-Jean. “Meanwhile (the organization) goes ahead with wellness programs to improve employee efficiency and productivity. And that’s a typical approach.”

At the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), national health representative Gayle Bossenberry said there is a high potential for subtle forms of reprisals against workers for lifestyle choices deemed unhealthy.

“Some parts of these programs really broach into workers’ personal lives, and we don’t think the employer has any business going into these areas,” said Bossenberry. “Instead, they should just deal with the workplace hazards.”

She added, however, that the CUPW would consider teaming up with management to tackle certain organizational issues, such as stress, harassment and violence in the workplace.

At the Canadian Labour and Business Centre, an Ottawa-based research institute with equal representation from unions and businesses, Derwyn Sangster said unions and managers tend to view wellness through “different prisms.”

Sangster, director of business, headed a team looking at healthy workplace practices at 12 organizations in Canada. He also oversaw a survey of 6,000 business and union leaders on health, safety and wellness issues. The results were published in Viewpoints 2002 on Healthy Workplace Practices.

Survey results showed that managers and union representatives assessed workplace issues differently. Managers saw much improvement in environmental safety, working relationships, worker motivation and workplace injuries; whereas unions said all these aspects had deteriorated during the previous two years. Both sides did agree, however, that stress level, absenteeism and work and family pressures had worsened in the same period.

Of the 12 workplaces examined, the ones that are unionized reported varying levels of union involvement. Some unions were “stand-offish,” others were passive, neither endorsing nor opposing the programs. At New Brunswick-based Irving Paper, working together on health and wellness programs was a way for both sides to start repairing the fractious labour relations that had plagued the organization in previous years.

The case studies revealed no pattern, said Sangster, adding that union support for wellness depended a great deal on the nature of the labour relationship going in.

But one intriguing pattern did emerge from the Viewpoints survey, said Sangster.

“When you looked at the number of different wellness initiatives workplaces had, the ones that had more initiatives tended to report better labour relations than the ones that didn’t,” said Sangster.

“That was interesting for us. It suggested that labour-management relations and the incidence of wellness programs were each indicators of the broader health of the workplace.”

Another noteworthy finding was the need for managers to communicate their motivations for such programs. In general, “where there was advanced consultation, discussion and notification, even if unions don’t formally participate, they certainly were happy to let their members participate,” said Sangster.

And looking over the survey results, Sangster added employers’ interest in wellness isn’t as nefarious as unions suggest.

“One of the things that several employers we talked to mentioned was that it’s going to be difficult for them to find workers.” They therefore needed to introduce workplace programs that would differentiate them from competitors, said Sangster.

“And there were several employers that said quite clearly that a good wellness program was something they hoped and expected would make them an employer of choice, and help them both recruit and keep workers. It was seen as a competitive advantage.”

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