Niagara Casinos awarded for wellness, psychological safety

Efforts contribute to reductions in disability claims
By Marcel Vander Wier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/30/2017
Beach Volleyball
The company also offers subsidized paddleboarding, kickboxing, volleyball tournaments and yoga programming periodically. Credit: Niagara Casinos

Niagara Casinos was a big winner at this year’s Canada’s Safest Employer awards, taking the top spot in two categories: Wellness and Psychological Safety.

Winners were unveiled at an awards gala held Oct. 24 in downtown Toronto. (A full profile of the event will run in the Nov. 27 issue of Canadian HR Reporter.)


An aging employee demographic has proved to be no match for the robust wellness program at Niagara Casinos, according to Colleen Falco, director of HR services at the company based in Niagara Falls, Ont.

Five years ago, the 4,000-employee company — which operates both Fallsview Casino Resort and Casino Niagara — overhauled its wellness program with its most senior workers in mind.

“The average age in our organization is 49,” she said. “The goal was to start to promote positive health and healthy lifestyles as a means to prevent some of the diseases that come naturally with aging, as well as some of the risks that come in an organization that’s 24-7 and shift work, and really try to encourage our folks to maintain a healthy lifestyle.”

A major initiative included overhauling the in-house cafeterias, ensuring fresh meal selections, calorie counts and healthy alternatives were all featured more prominently, said Falco.

“For example, if you want to choose that burger and fries today, how many minutes of cycling do you need to burn that off?”

The company’s efforts contributed to tangible reductions in short- and long-term disability claims, as well as drug spend, she said.

“It’s actually astonishing to us… With an aging demographic, you wouldn’t expect that. And we do attribute it to our wellness program.”

Improving the company’s health and wellness programming was the right thing to do, said Falco.

“Our wellness program is a significant way that we can offer initiatives and fun events that help to build a sense of community, as well as show our employees that we care about them, while reducing costs.”

A dining-room overhaul isn’t the only healthy lifestyle initiative, said disability services manager Lindsay Daw.

Wellness centres are offered at each of the Niagara Casinos locations — and include fitness equipment, weights and stretching areas.

“All employees are able to access that, and some will even use it as a quick stretch break if they have time over their lunch,” she said.

The company also offers subsidized paddleboarding, kickboxing, volleyball tournaments and yoga programming periodically.

“We leverage the local wellness community a lot,” said Falco. “They are amazing. We have 4,000 employees, so it’s a great opportunity for them to get in front of (staff).”

Much of the recognition is owed to Niagara Casinos’ “very active” wellness committee, which strives to roll out healthy initiatives each quarter, she said.

“They’re the ones that come to us with fresh ideas for new events or initiatives. It helps to keep the program fresh and alive in the organization.”

Holistic planning is critical to the program’s success, with Niagara Casinos using a “top-box” report — a combination of internal data and statistics from third-party disability providers — to determine employees’ overall health. On-site voluntary health screenings also prove useful in identifying risk factors.

“They take that information and really try to target areas that are higher risk in the organization. I think that level of planning is really what’s made the program effective,” said Falco.

The most recent report from January revealed 67 per cent of participating workers had three or more health-risk factors, largely driven by nutrition, she said.

“Obesity, diabetes and heart disease were the biggest disease categories that were identified as a risk for the organization.”

The team responded by offering a Weight Watchers program, with 116 employees participating — 85 per cent of whom said they wouldn’t have if done so it wasn’t offered on-site. A total of 1,300 pounds was lost.

“It just shows that sometimes when you make something available on-site, it just makes it easier,” said Falco. “That’s our philosophy. Not to offer the same programs all the time… but rather mix it up and offer different things to keep it top of mind.”

Psychological safety

Meanwhile, working at a bustling, all-hours gambling establishment provides a unique set of psychological safety challenges, according to Daw.

“We are a complex organization being that we are 365 days a year, seven days a week, 24 hours,” she said. “The challenges our associates face are different than a lot of industries, so mental health is extremely important here.”

The establishments, which include hotel, spa, theatre and restaurants alongside the entertainment and multi-wagering operation, require unique psychological safety programming to ensure employees function at their highest level, said Daw.

For instance, Niagara Casinos recently offered resiliency training workshops for its 1,000 table games dealers to aid in their interaction with clients — many of whom are unhappy at the prospect of losing money. Coping with everyday struggles and stresses was the focus, she said.

“We received an overwhelmingly positive response from that,” she said, noting that feedback surveys indicate more than 80 per cent of participants continue to use their learned skills in their day-to-day work.

To determine the focus of its mental health initiatives, the company uses its top-box report that highlights the top reasons for the usage of its employee assistance program (EAP), disability claims and drug costs, said Falco.

 “Whatever indicators are leading, that’s where we target our resources.”

Three years ago, the company realized that EAP resources were not getting to staff early enough to curb potential mental health issues. Many workers did not know enough about the program, believing usage was reserved solely for counselling, said Falco.

As a result, Niagara Casinos designed programming for supervisors, educating them on what resources were available and how they could spot red flags with their employees, which led to greater awareness and openness to talk about mental health within the company.

A holistic health and wellness strategy, introduced five years ago, is the backbone of the company’s mental health successes, said Falco.

“Our focus really is on prevention and health promotion,” she said. “Mental health claims were always in our top three for short-term disability and long-term disability. It’s fallen off completely and we’re actually under the benchmark for similar industries now.”

Niagara Casinos targets different demographics and their specific needs. This includes easing the mental stressors of older workers who are nearing retirement and require support or information on the subject of transitioning pensions. One psychological safety initiative tackled financial health and wellness in terms of options after retirement, said Falco.

Financial stresses also occur on the other end of the generational spectrum. Niagara Casinos offered seminars to millennials on how to budget and save for a house or car. The sessions were led by financial advisors and debt counsellors, said Falco.

Other mental health initiatives include anti-bullying and diversity/inclusion programming, as well as participation in community campaigns. For example, in conjunction with the annual Bell Let’s Talk campaign, Niagara Casinos shone the spotlight on some of its workers who are affected by mental health issues. The internal campaign was called “Great People of Niagara Casinos” and stories were featured on signage throughout the company’s facilities.

 “It is a newer program that we’re doing,” said Daw. “We interviewed a few associates and had them tell a story about whatever it may be that mental health has impacted them in their lives. Our associates love it. It’s peer-to-peer and it’s relatable. And it gets you to know a little bit more about the associates.”

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