Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Making wellness pay Right program keeps staff, and bottom line, healthier

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Well, fall is definitely here. The leaves have all but disappeared and the unexpected recent snowfall reminded us that winter isn't far behind. Signs of fall are also seen at the local farmers markets, as hundreds of families anxiously seek just the right pumpkin for their Halloween festivities. Other families are busy harvesting their remaining garden produce or attending those famous local fall harvest dinners.

Personally, I've always enjoyed fall. While the unpredictable weather is sometimes a nuisance, I thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to drive into the country where I can stand in awe at the wondrous arrangement of red, orange, yellow and brown colours stretching over the landscape for as far as the eye can see.

Yet, I know that once fall arrives, winter isn't far behind. For me, the real sign of advancing winter isn't the light snow, or the change of earth's smells or the increasingly blowing wind; it's the flood of advertising for those upcoming influenza clinics. Frankly, I don't know if they're offering me a personal convenience or whether they're trying to scare me about an upcoming pandemic. Or, perhaps, it's just that I simply hate getting a needle. Let's face it, it's my duty to stay healthy and avoid being ill at any time, let alone being ill during the winter. So, off I go to the influenza clinic. To me, it's a personal safety decision. What about you?

On the other hand, I find most individuals fail to realize that personal illness also creates a safety issue for employers. For instance, have you ever thought about the impact your illness can have on colleagues in the workplace? I'm sure you've seen situations where multiple members of one entire department have been quickly struck down with the same illness. Just like dominoes, employees in department after department experience the same problem -- lower productivity and/or absence due to illness.

However, it isn't just employee absence that causes problems. Let's face it, when employees aren't feeling well, their work productivity is low, work doesn't get done, or customers don't get served. When the illness finally forces the employee to stay home, the remaining employees may feel overwhelmed with extra work and soon, they too become ill. So, if employees don't get sick with influenza or the common cold, they might become ill from the stress of overwork such that time off work, from their point of view, is the only saving grace.

These employee-related winter health issues have a significant cost to the employer. And that's in addition to the many other illnesses being exhibited in the workplace that you might not be aware of. For instance, the most recently released Ipsos Reid employee health study showed that one in five Canadians report suffering from depression. With that kind of statistic, it's no wonder that employer costs are hovering around $51 billion annually for mental-health issues alone.

That's a ton of dollars to be borne on the back of employers. Yet, where does responsibility for employee health lie? Is it only an employee's responsibility? What role should employers play if any? After all, employers have no control over what employees do when off work as they cannot interfere with personal, private lives.

Well, frankly, employers aren't waiting to engage in a debate about who's responsible for employee health. That's because company health-care costs are escalating so quickly that employers are simply taking responsibility for whatever steps they can take in the workplace to reduce their employee health-benefit costs.

Irrespective of health-care costs, employers are also well aware that a healthy and fully engaged employee is much more productive and makes a much more significant contribution to company profitability.

Studies also show that 70 per cent of all medical costs are related to smoking, physical inactivity, food choices, and stress. As a result, when corporations implement employee wellness programs, they often start to tackle these problems first. This includes removing sugar-laced drinks from their vending machines, setting no-smoking policies and offering smoking cessation programs as well as fitness and stress management classes.

Corporations also often offer employees the opportunity for a health risk assessment and in maintaining statistics, they can track problem areas, offer preventive as well as medical care solutions and assess the corporate return on investment. Still others provide educational programming to help employees understand that being healthy is essentially an investment in their financial future since poor health will impact on their earning potential.

The concept of workplace wellness has been around for several years and more and more organizations are implementing programs that are directed to improving employee health and cutting costs. These initiatives appear to be working as reports suggest companies are experiencing savings ranging from $200 to $500 per employee.

These numbers are impressive and might encourage others to develop a plan for implementing their own wellness programs. However, there is considerable planning that needs to be done before any implementation can take place. It is not as simple as allocating a special room for exercise equipment; specific attention needs to be paid to objectives and methodologies.

First of all, you need to get employee and senior executive support. Employees need to see value and understand how such a program will benefit them. Employers on the other hand, want to see some figures on potential cost savings. You will also need to establish a team of professionals to oversee the development and implementation or programming plans as one person cannot do it alone. This should include your human resource manager, a workplace health and safety professional and a champion from the ranks of senior management.

In developing a workplace wellness program, team leaders need to be cognizant of local legislation particularly with respect to the privacy of employee information, mandatory versus voluntary participation, the application of employee rewards or bonuses, and the application of penalties for non participation or employee fees.

Your program also needs to be grounded in fact and so it will be necessary to conduct some preliminary screening and assessment of employees as well as a statistical assessment of your current state with respect to absenteeism and accident rates, turnover rates etc.

With winter just around the corner, colds and influenza illnesses will ultimately strike your workplace. Now is the time to get your program started.

Source: With Health Care in the Spotlight, Wellness Programs are on the Rise; SHRM, Issue 3, 2012. Taking a measure of mental health in the workplace, Globe and mail, Oct 9, 2012.

Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC, CCP, is president of Legacy Bowes Group and vice-president of Waterhouse Executive Search. She can be reached at barb@legacybowes.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 27, 2012 H1

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