Corporate wellness initiatives have gradually become expected by the multigenerational workforce. But as companies continue to adapt to new normals, it’s clear that purchasing a ping-pong table or offering a discount at the gym next door is no longer enough. With a healthy workplace environment more valuable than ever to Canadian workers, top marks go to those organizations with a positive wellness culture. Since health and wellness options can seem endless, however, we've crafted this guide with concrete examples you can implement in your organization. You'll also learn why corporate wellness provides benefits to employees and employers alike, how to ensure your initiatives are successful, and much more.
From the recent college grad looking for their first job, to the mother of two trying to balance domestic and work responsibilities, to the baby boomer mentoring colleagues – we all work in a competitive market with increasing daily demands.
Add to that the COVID-19 pandemic and its monumental impact on how and where we work, and it’s no surprise all the hustle can take a physical and emotional toll.
We check our phones constantly, often working into the evening; we can’t always make time to buy fresh food or prepare nutritious meals; we hunch over our laptops and phones, creating poor posture – all the while struggling to keep our work and personal lives separate.
Not only do many Canadians suffer from increased stress and anxiety, feelings of isolation, and concerns about their mental health as a result of working from home, but the sad reality is that too few modern and remote workplaces are set up to promote healthy habits. Desk jobs involve long hours of sitting, and both the stress and excitement of a go-go-go lifestyle can lead to sleep disruption and less-than-healthy coping techniques.
This isn't just bad news for tired, sedentary, or lonely employees. It also impacts the businesses seeing decreases in overall productivity and pouring money into employee benefits in an effort to combat preventable or manageable chronic issues like obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain mental health issues.
But despite struggling employees costing big bucks, there's plenty of good news as well: an analysis by Sun Life Financial showed that companies that kick-started an effective wellness program reduced costs and experienced financial gains.
Corporate wellness programs are a win-win in the workplace world, where healthier employees are happier, happier employees are more productive, and companies stand to benefit from improved financial health.
This is a correlation that’s backed by hard evidence.
Not only does the Sun Life-Ivey Canadian Wellness Return on Investment (ROI) Study show that corporate wellness programs reduce absenteeism2, a 2018 study by the McGill Comprehensive Health Improvement Program found that, after one year, the benefits of Canadian corporate wellness programs resulted in clinically important improvements in physical and mental health3.
And it doesn't stop there.
Well-designed workplace health promotion programs can improve blood pressure and cholesterol levels while providing the virtual services Canadian employees are looking for more and more. These elements can in turn impact financial measures important to employers, including health benefits utilization and worker productivity.
But the keyword here is "well-designed." You can't just stock your break room with granola bars or host the occasional online social event and call it a day. Wellness programs work when they're tailored to the needs and goals of certain groups and when they provide opportunities based on employee engagement, input, and feedback.
Stepping back and identifying gaps in your current wellness structure can help you develop an agile, equitable, inclusive program designed for the workforce of the future.
To answer this question, we first have to define "workplace wellness" versus "corporate wellness"; two similar-but-different ideas.
The phrase "workplace wellness" is an umbrella term describing a number of programs or activities typically offered as part of employer-provided health plans. As a means to help employees improve their health and reduce healthcare costs, these initiatives effectively stop bad habits before they become health risks.
Think of programs that focus on:
"Corporate wellness", while close in meaning, refers specifically to programs, policies, benefits, and environmental support designed to power up the health and safety of all employees.
Corporate wellness programs can be:
If this sounds like a wide-ranging scope, that's because it is. Corporate wellness programs are meant to encompass everything from disease prevention and management to education, and from telemedicine and other virtual care services to health-related team-building activities.
According to a 2017 survey from the Conference Board of Canada, one-third of Canadian employers have a formal corporate wellness program in place and almost half have informal policies – stats that have jumped significantly since 2009.5
The International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans also reported in 2017 that 75% of employers offer wellness initiatives to improve overall worker health and well-being. Of those companies that instituted wellness programs, 66% saw an increase in productivity and 67% reported their employees were more satisfied.6
Given that 80% of Canadian employees believe their overall well-being would improve if they were offered a personalized wellness program7, employers are expressing renewed urgency around employee well-being and mental health.
With limited budgets, competing priorities, and the ongoing challenges of adapting to a new business normal, why should corporate wellness be on your radar? It's simple: healthy employees lead to healthy companies. If employees are sick, overweight, stressed, sleep-deprived, disengaged, worried about money, or feeling isolated or burnt out, a company isn't going to thrive.
Overweight and obese workers, for instance, have been found to be:
Even beyond the imperfect metric of weight, inadequate levels of physical activity are associated with additional total healthcare expenditures.9
Furthermore, in view of the fact that most adults spend more of their waking hours at work than anywhere else, it’s worth noting that:
Basically, healthier employees perform better. Studies show that not only are physically active employees absent less frequently than their inactive counterparts12, but physically active adults have lower annual health care expenditures than insufficiently active adults.
Meanwhile, employers who are rated favourably on psychological health and safety in the workplace experience:
All of which can impact a company’s bottom line.
A study carried out by Soma Analytics in 2017 showed that FTSE 100 companies that prioritize employee engagement and well-being outperform the rest of the FTSE 100 by 10%. 14
But the impact is about far more than profitability. Health tends to breed happiness in a very real way. When companies prioritize wellness goals, especially in combination with career development, the result is a more positive work environment.
In Sanofi Canada’s 2020 Healthcare Survey, 86% of respondents agreed that a workplace environment that encourages health and wellness is an important factor when deciding on a job offer or remaining at an organization.
Which is why many employers look to corporate wellness programs to increase employee engagement and become an employer of choice.
Promoting healthy habits is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to workplace wellness. Wellness initiatives also do something invaluable: they show employees you truly care about their health and well-being.
Now more than ever, employees are turning to their employers to help provide solutions – not only for their physical well-being, but in all aspects of their life.
A 2021 report from Aon showed increased employee interest in lifestyle benefits like stress management and counselling (84%), financial planning (74%), nutrition programs (70%), virtual fitness memberships (69%) and fitness equipment purchase/rental (66%).
A thoughtfully designed and well-implemented program can introduce a number of benefits into the workplace:
Unsurprisingly, this range of benefits has a pretty big influence on employee satisfaction.
According to Sanofi Canada’s 2020 Healthcare Survey, 77% of employees with wellness programs at work agreed that their workplace culture encourages health and wellness,17 61% stated their employer effectively helps employees manage stress, and 74% described the quality of their work health benefit plan as good or excellent.
This, in turn, impacts job satisfaction: 90% of employees that praise their company’s wellness culture say they are satisfied with their current jobs, compared to 61% without the benefits of a wellness culture.
Wellness programs can take many forms—the only boundaries are those set by budget, time, and imagination. Here are a few examples of programs that have delivered some remarkable results.
Determining that “becoming more active” and “eating healthier” were the wellness desires most important to their employees, Indeed Canada implemented a wellness program that boasts close to a 66% participation rate. In the second quarter of 2018 alone, they created 850 personal activity and healthy habit challenges that encouraged participants to take nearly 10,000 steps per day on average. Avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach to wellness that doesn’t work, every Indeed employee can receive a customized wellness plan (offering talks, challenges, webinars, and health consultations) and the company relies on both onsite events and an online portal to help employees work toward health improvements while earning points toward incentives. 18
Another long-running success story is SSQ Financial Group’s award-winning HealthWise Program: a company-wide health and wellness initiative designed to promote attendance by fostering a healthy workplace and encouraging employees to choose a healthy lifestyle. After launching their program between 2010 and 2012, the company saw a 32% decrease in absenteeism within the first three years. 19
With mental health a significant challenge faced by many Canadians, EY Canada increased their mental health benefit in 2018 to cover 100% of mental health services with up to $5,000 provided annually to every employee and their dependents. The plan covers an expanded roster of mental health professionals, including psychologists, registered social workers, psychoanalysts, psychotherapists, clinical counsellors, and marriage or family therapists.20 EY also introduced a free, digital cognitive behaviour therapy solution to effectively assist employees and their dependents with mild to moderate symptoms of depression, anxiety, and related concerns.21
Subsidize fitness trackers or apps (there has been a significant increase in the use of digital devices and mobile apps for personal health or fitness).
Offer an employee discount for a gym membership, or offer financial compensation for employees who work out a certain number of times each month.
Pay for participation in wellness programs or for meeting set health metrics.
Contribute to health saving accounts or discount health insurance as a reward for reaching health goals (about half of Canadian organizations now offer health care spending accounts).
Here are a few innovative ideas that major organizations have put into action to promote corporate wellness22:
With a little imagination, you can reinvent successful initiatives like these to benefit in-office, remote, and hybrid workers alike.
Planning to implement a corporate wellness program? Easy.
Imagining the benefits of a corporate wellness program? Very easy.
Creating a successful corporate wellness program? Actually… still pretty easy! But there are some important guidelines to follow.
Corporate wellness programs rely on participation to succeed. To get people to participate, it's important to get the word out.
Just like wellness is more than eating the occasional kale salad, wellness programs are about more than offering a gym membership or virtual health class. It's essential to look at the entire employee population, their families, and corporate culture to figure out how people can be encouraged to change their behaviour.
And that isn't always simple.
But as we’ve already discussed, wellness programs are especially effective when they're clearly tailored to the goals and needs of specific populations and provide opportunities for employee engagement and input.
Here are a few ways to make that happen:
Chronic stress at work can result in a number of negative side effects, including:
Stress can also lead to severe physical health problems like:
And the list goes on. Stressful work conditions can even hamper an individual’s ability to make important lifestyle changes, such as:
The Canadian Policy Research Networks estimates that stress-related absences cost Canadian employers about $3.5 billion each year.26 What’s more, the costs of lost productivity due to mental illness in Canadian businesses equate to $11.1 billion per year.27 The World Health Organization has even recognized burnout as an official medical diagnosis.
The way forward is clear: a majority of employers are increasing their investment in mental health programs (88%), stress management and resilience (81%), and mindfulness and meditation (69%).
Holistic wellness programs help employers lead the way to better health by:
Stress is an unavoidable fact of life. With the goal to design wellness programs that help minimize and control employee stress levels, many employers are adding families to benefits offered for greater peace of mind.
Employees have varying needs, fitness levels, family situations, and more. They require personalized experiences in their corporate wellness programs. And the best way to create a more personalized experience is by using digital platforms to host wellness programs.
Virtual platforms help generate specific wellness goals and activities based on each employee’s preferences—helping reduce stress via mindfulness for some, and promoting hiking or bike commuting for others.
Virtual programs like telemedicine, meanwhile, have experienced one of the most significant increases in popularity of all wellness benefits – with 87% of employers planning to increase their investment moving forward.
The implementation of services like telemedicine can help target a broad employee demographic regardless of age, location, and other personal factors.
Program evaluation is critical to maintaining accountability for a wellness program. Are your employees using your offerings? Why or why not? Conducting regular evaluations and analyses to first determine what will be most helpful – and then following up to see who is using what – is essential for measuring results and adapting programs accordingly.
Overall, there are three types of evaluation:
There are lots of ways to measure impact and outcomes, including contracting outside experts to conduct reviews, conducting focus groups and employee surveys, and performing health risk assessments and cost-benefit analyses that include medical claims comparisons.29
Start with a survey of what employees want.
You might consider using some version of a Wellness Organization Self-Assessment Tool in conjunction with a resource like the MindsMatter evaluation powered by the Mental Health Commission of Canada.
There are many other free and helpful tools available online, including Wellsteps’ Checklist to Change, which helps evaluate easy changes companies can make to increase worksite wellness.
Once you’ve set up your corporate wellness program, your strategy should include asking your employees for feedback.
Send out regular surveys or hold quarterly meetings to gauge how employees are responding to your wellness initiatives. How would they improve the program? What’s going well? What isn’t? All of this information will help you adapt your corporate wellness programs according to your employees’ needs and desires.
While many companies focus on return on investment for dollars spent on wellness initiatives, it’s equally important to consider value of investment (VOI). This includes examining the broader impact of programs on core priorities for your organization, which may include improved employee morale, talent attraction and retention, or heightened customer loyalty.
Today’s technology offers many opportunities to improve corporate wellness strategies. Interactive platforms can turn team-building challenges, social networking, and gaming into corporate wellness opportunities. 30
Artificial intelligence (AI) also has an important role to play in corporate wellness by identifying trends and making forecasts for the future. Not only can employers use AI to collect and analyze data to improve wellness initiatives, AI software can provide better personalization and more rapid responses to employees.
Finally, telemedicine services like Dialogue play a crucial role in workplace wellness programs. Employers creating an employee wellness program can use telemedicine to educate, motivate, and provide treatment. The availability of 24-hour, on-call care from medical professionals doesn’t just bump up modern EAP offerings, it supports the on-site benefits and culture that other wellness initiatives foster:
According to a November 2020 survey by Environics and Dialogue, 82% of Canadians believe virtual care should be offered as an employee benefit and 66% said they would likely use it if it was available.
Meanwhile, a 2020 poll conducted by The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) showed that Canadians are embracing virtual care options and would like to see them continued, improved, and expanded in the future.
You should aim to choose wellness program providers that can first help you gauge employee preferences, and then offer a variety of options for achieving them—from virtual or on-site fitness and incentive programs, to a digital wellness platform and telemedicine benefits.
Here are a couple of questions that can help you find the right fit:
No matter which solutions you pick, it's important to prioritize flexibility. For example, your vendors should be accessible for employees who:
Tumultuous times are an ideal opportunity to re-evaluate and reinforce the employee experience while supporting business objectives.
With an increased focus on remote work and mental health support, more employers are conducting incentive plan reviews and rolling out wellness strategies that integrate benefits like virtual care, family care, iCBT, and digitally-driven EAPs.
Corporate wellness programs come in all shapes and sizes and can be made to fit any employer or employee. But whatever style they take, they can make a big difference in employee wellness, productivity, and retention.
Here are some key takeaways from this guide to keep in mind:
8 Dor, A., Ferguson, C., Langwith, C. & Tan, E. Dor, A., Ferguson, C., Langwith, C. & Tan, E. A heavy burden: The individual costs of being overweight and obese in the United States. (George Washington University, 2010). Available at http://hsrc.himmelfarb.gwu.edu/sphhs_policy_facpubs/212
9 Carlson, S. A., Fulton, J. E., Pratt, M., Yang, Z. & Adams, E. K. Inadequate Physical Activity and Health Care Expenditures in the United States. Prog. Cardiovasc. Dis. 57, 315–323 (2015).
12 Goetzel, R. Z. et al. Ten modifiable health risk factors are linked to more than one-fifth of employer-employee health care spending. Health Aff. (Millwood) 31, 2474–2484 (2012).
24 Sapolsky, R. Taming stress. Sci. Am. 289, 86–95 (2003)
25 American Psychological Association. How stress affects your health. (2013). at http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress.aspx
27 Martin Shain, et al., “Mental Health and Substance Abuse at Work: Perspectives from Research and Implications for Leaders,” A background paper prepared by the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health, November 14, 2002.