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Building a positive, proactive wellness program improves your employees’ lives — and your business success 

Canadian workers are physically and mentally exhausted — and that’s not only impacting their health and wellbeing, it’s impacting countless businesses in Canada and beyond.

According to a new report, 47% of workers in Canada say they feel exhausted during a typical workday, compared with the 39% global average. While Canadian business leaders are taking note and increasing their mental health support and awareness, refreshing or overhauling existing systems and benefits can be a challenge. Not only are employees’ needs and wellness concerns diverse and broad-reaching, but COVID-19 ushered in a host of new hurdles while eliminating the bulk of in-person, in-office interactions. This can make understanding and acting on employees’ real-time needs an even taller order. 

This article explores some actionable strategies for creating a workplace wellness program, and an overarching culture of wellbeing. With this framework in place, your organization can best support employees while promoting better retention and recruitment, greater productivity, and a positive workplace culture that drives ongoing success. 

The business case for employee wellness programs 

Poor health is one of the biggest factors driving “presenteeism” — employees being physically present for the workday, but being unproductive during that time. Nearly one in three Canadian employers and more than half of employees say presenteeism is a “serious issue” in the workplace. Additionally, more than eight in 10 employees self-report having experienced presenteeism

Presenteeism is directly related to employee wellbeing. People who smoke, don’t eat healthfully, or don’t exercise, for example, have significantly higher rates of presenteeism. Depression also accelerates presenteeism: employees suffering from depression experience a 131% increase in high presenteeism.

Absenteeism also has a significant and often long-lasting impact on business success. Ninety-percent of Canadian employers indicate absenteeism is “very costly” for their organization, and negatively impacts productivity. Employees who often or always feel “burned out” at work are 63% more likely to take sick days, and these numbers have only risen during the pandemic. Thirty-two percent of Canadian employees report rising stress levels, and 45% attribute it to the lack of separation between work and personal life.

Decreased productivity in the workplace has a direct impact on businesses and their bottom lines. Canadian companies lose an estimated $16.6 billion due to mental health-related absenteeism.

By improving employee wellness, your business can mitigate some of these common challenges while reaping a host of benefits. For example, employees who are engaged and “experience high levels of wellbeing” are 45% more likely to adapt to change — a critical soft skill both during the pandemic and, now, as organizations determine what comes next. More adaptable employees can shift as responsibilities change without experiencing added stress or performance issues. Instead, they’re more likely to lean into new or unknown tasks and keep moving forward. 

Overall, employee wellness programs are critical to organizational and individual employee success. Between improved productivity, reduced absenteeism and presenteeism, and retention, for every dollar spent on wellbeing initiatives, the median return on investment is $1.62 by the third year and increases over time. It’s too big of a challenge and too big of an upside to ignore. 

How employee wellness helps drive talent attraction 

Not only is employee wellness directly tied to reduced absenteeism and presenteeism, but a strong wellness program impacts both recruitment and long-term talent retention. Burned-out employees are 2.6 times as likely to be actively seeking a different job — and replacing a single employee can cost employers up to 213% of the person’s salary, depending on the role and its seniority. 

A positive, high-momentum wellness initiative tends to have a direct impact on company culture. Eighty-five percent of employers report these programs have helped bolster everything from employee engagement to retention and overall culture, which has huge implications on a company’s ability to attract talent. According to an Indeed study, 43% of job seekers in Canada say that reading positive reviews about company culture, work environment and how the company treats its employees is important for developing a feeling of positive connection or camaraderie with a company they are considering during the application phase.*

Wellness programs also help strengthen an organization’s employer brand. According to an Indeed survey, 26% of job seekers in Canada started looking for a new job because they wanted better work-life balance.** At the same time, candidates and employees’ tend to believe employers put the company’s financial health and reputation over both salaries and work-life balance.This perception, however, could prevent organizations from attracting the most qualified talent, and instead have to settle for less skilled candidates. 

An emphasis on comprehensive wellbeing — physical and mental health, work-life balance, and financial stability, for example — can enhance your company’s branding and improve recruitment. An employer brand that highlights its wellbeing initiatives can help attract higher-calibre candidate engagement and successful hiring, shortening open headcount periods and giving businesses more options for filling each role. 

Starbucks Canada is a good example. In addition to the company’s Your Special Blend benefits packages for employees who work 20-plus hours per week, Starbucks recently introduced LifeWorks, a digital wellness platform and application that offers wellness opportunities beyond traditional employee assistance programs (EAPs). Support spans mental, physical, social, and financial wellbeing, including limitless counseling and financial advising. 

This builds on Starbucks long-time commitment to mental health and wellbeing. In 2006, the company began offering a $5,000 mental health benefit which, quickly, became their most-activated employee perk. More recently, Starbucks offered free Headspace meditation app subscriptions to its workers, plus mental health mindfulness support to thousands of store managers. These, along with other employee-first policies and benefits, have long ensured Starbucks position as one of Canada’s best places to work

How to create an effective well-being program 

Here are three key steps employers must take to establish a wellbeing program that works. 

Step one: Identify issues via internal assessments 

While, universally, corporate wellbeing programs are positive influences for employers and employees, no two companies are the same. Instead of following prescriptive wellness models, start first by conducting internal assessments among employees and stakeholders. What are employees struggling with the most, from a wellbeing perspective? 

  • Are there mental health issues like depression and anxiety fueling absenteeism and presenteeism? 
  • Are employees worried about financial stability? 
  • Are physical ailments or lack of exercise and healthy eating keeping them from achieving peak wellbeing? 
  • Are individuals struggling to achieve a positive work-life balance, when the lines are so blurred right now? 

Or is it something else? Be sure to consider all areas of wellbeing in your outreach, from more traditional physical and mental considerations to family and care challenges, financial concerns, and other lingering hurdles. 

Step two: Representing all voices in the wellbeing conversation 

Consider assembling an internal committee, representative of all levels and functions within your organization. While your initial outreach and assessment will provide a broad view of your employees’ wants, needs, and goals, having a diverse team will ensure these insights are properly interpreted and acted on. A senior-level empty nester will likely have very different views on day-to-day childcare challenges than a young parent. Likewise, an older worker may interpret calls for short-term disability and more flexible scheduling differently than a recent college graduate. A representative panel will ensure all angles and perspectives are considered and acted on. 

Step three: Establish KPIs

It’s important to define clear-cut key performance indicators (KPIs). Launching a wellness program with an eye on broad, top-line goals — reducing presenteeism or increasing productivity, for example – can be difficult to track and optimize. Decreasing the number of active smokers by 10% or driving a 1,000-pound weight loss company wide, for example, give a better view of ongoing engagement and progress, as well as program elements that aren’t as appealing or clear. With these benchmarks in place, HR or benefits leads can keep tabs on success metrics and shift goals, offerings, and objectives to best suit real-time employee needs. 

BP Canada excels at defining these parameters and KPIs. Recently the organization launched a “one million steps challenge” encouraging employees to walk or run at least one million steps over the course of a year. This was layered on an existing Elements for Life initiative, the company’s own wellness program that supports emotional, social, and financial wellbeing. Based on participation, employees can earn donations, special incentives, and more. 

In identifying key areas of need and support for your employees and working quickly and effectively to implement targeted initiatives, HR decision-makers and business leaders can create a culture of wellbeing — one that supports, engages, and attracts talent while paving the way for ongoing productivity and success.

*Indeed survey, n=1,000

**Indeed survey, n=1,300