It pays to pay attention to employee health and wellness

October 24, 2007

By Maclean Kay
Troy Media

CALGARY, Oct. 24, 2007 /Troy Media/ — Paying attention to your employees’ health and wellness is smart business.Paying attention to your employees’ health and wellness is smart business. This was the message told to attendees of a Calgary Economic Development (CED) workforce initiative best practice forum held this week. The returns include an increase in productivity and greater employee retention.

“The status quo of absenteeism and people away on disability is costly,” Dr. Graham Lowe, president of the Graham Lowe Institute and partner in Great Place to Work Institute Canada, told the audience of the Apples to Zen: Empowering Employee Wellness forum.

Lowe cited Statistics Canada studies which indicate that absenteeism rates for full-time employees have been on the rise over the last ten years, then added that “where once there were blank stares (when it comes to employee wellness), now (because of the current labour market) there is greater receptivity to this concept.”

Apples to Zen is the third Building Calgary’s Talent forum to be held inCalgary this year under CED’s workforce initiative program, CalgaryWorks. Employers were invited to share ideas and best practices that motivate and invigorate employees and create better workplaces and communities.

“We’re not just talking about smoothies and massages,” Elsbeth Mehrer, CED’s Manager of Workforce Development, said. “We’re inviting companies to share ideas that will improve the physical, emotional and spiritual wellness of the entire community.”

“Employers that have already implemented some of these programs and have recognized the importance of employee wellness as a business issue run report that the benefits to the company – measured in customer and staff satisfaction, increased productivity and decreased absenteeism and turnover – far outweigh the investment,” added Mehrer.

Although employers face different situations depending on their industry and the demographics of their labour force, the lessons and ideas discussed at the forum were applicable across the board, attendees were told.

“A good idea is a good idea, no matter if it comes from a huge company or an individual employee,” Richard Gotfried, Vice President of Corporate Communications for Trico Homes and a panel member, said. Trico Homes was named one of the Best Workplaces in Canada for 2006 and, while the recognition appreciated, he said, wellness is an ongoing process and companies should always be on the lookout for more good ideas.

Another member of the panel discussion, Suitcase Interactive CEO and co-founder Ryan Gill, agreed, adding that employers can and should go even further.

“Traditional corporate things like health club memberships, while good, aren’t rocket science,” said Gill. He said employers should also address their employees’ emotional intelligence, stressing the benefits to the entire community.

Gill pointed out that corporate philanthropy is one way of achieving emotional-intelligence wellness. Dedicated corporate involvement, he said, can create a more fulfilling workplace.

Each year, Gill said, Suitcase shuts down for ten days and takes its employees to Mexico under its Project Smile program. For eight days, the employees build a school or clinic in a chosen community. The trip, however, is not considered vacation time and all expenses are paid.

Gill said that the cost of this trip and stopping operations for ten days is a worthwhile investment.

“We don’t lose people,” he says simply, adding that only one employee has left in the last seven years, “and he went on to bigger and better things, with our full support.”

On the surface, Project Smile may not address the physical health of his employees but, according to Gill, there is a direct connection:

“(Project Smile) addresses people’s emotional intelligence in a profound way. People need that outlet to be fulfilled. It may sound cheesy, but giving is living.”

Not all employee wellness initiatives are so radical, however. According to speaker Dr. David Posen, some of the most effective solutions for improving individual and corporate health and wellness are as simple as sleeping more and stressing less. A former medical doctor, Posen specializes in stress management.

“Ours is an increasingly over-stressed, sleep-deprived society,” Posen said during his address. He later added that employers are a large part of the problem, which is exacerbated by the current labour shortage.

“There’s no long-term vision in too many cases,” Posen said, “just the numbers for next quarter.” If the root problems go unaddressed, companies will continue “lurching from crisis to crisis.”

According to Posen, if a company is forced to perform the same amount of work but with fewer employees, the best solution is simple: honesty and communication.

“Sit down with your employees, and tell them ‘we’re in a situation,’ and ask for their suggestions. It might be temp workers, it might be extended deadlines, it might be more overtime, but whatever the solution, they won’t feel exploited,” Posen said.

Employers can be part of the solution for social issues facing Calgary employers and the community as a whole, CED’s Mehrer said.

“Employers need to understand what the hot-button issues are for their employees and the community they operate in,” she said. For example, “they need to look at ways to secure affordable housing and child care.”

“There are so many things employers could do, but don’t, just because they haven’t been thought of yet.”

Channels: Bugle-Observer (NB) and the Daily Gleaner, (NB), November 30, 2007