How IWK encourages healthier habits among staff

As a hospital, the IWK Health Centre in Halifax has a natural interest in promoting health and wellness. And in its case, many of the changes it makes to encourage healthy eating among patients also apply to its employees. “We want to make sure we’re living up to what we should do,” says Brenda MacDonald, director of corporate services at the hospital.

Its most recent change was to remove sugary drinks like pop and juice from the hospital’s vending machines, cafeteria and stores. Even the on-site Tim Hortons has joined the rest of the hospital in removing sugary drinks in favour of beverages such as milk, bottled water, coffee and tea since the June 7 change. “It’s just as important for the staff as it is for the patients,” says MacDonald, citing the high obesity rates in Nova Scotia.

Read: IWK Health Centre boosts wellness programs following 2015 award

Employers, of course, tread a fine line in how much they encourage behavioural change among their staff. In the IWK’s case, it did see somewhat of a backlash as some staff members asserted their right to make their own choices about what they drink. But as MacDonald points out, the hospital isn’t banning people from having sugary drinks. And, she notes, it provided a convenient alternative by setting up what it calls a hydration station with four different flavours of herb- and fruit-infused water every day. As an added incentive, the water, in comparison to the sugary drinks it used to sell, is free. “By not charging for it, it really does support the environment,” says MacDonald.
Barbara Whynot, the hospital’s manager of occupational health, safety and wellness, says the organization tries to mirror many of its patient wellness programs by offering them to its employees as well. For its food services, for example, it moved away from the traditional hospital approach of serving meals to patients at set times based on limited number of choices to allowing patients — and staff — to order from a menu of healthier options at any time of the day or night.

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“They’re all healthier options,” says Whynot. “We really don’t have anything here that’s unhealthy.”

With policy experts and governments debating ideas such as taxes on unhealthy foods, how to deal with sugar is certainly a hot topic. But how well does limiting or potentially banning unhealthy foods work? And while hospitals are a natural place for wellness efforts such as those undertaken by the IWK, are they feasible for other types of workplaces, including those in the private sector, that aren’t in the health business?

When it comes to the effectiveness of such changes, Krista Leck Merner, a Halifax-based dietitian whose work includes workplace wellness, says it’s important to keep expectations realistic. “You can certainly support people who are open to change,” she says, noting that while some employees may not embrace the changes, the key is to make healthier options more convenient for those who do.

Read: 5 steps to promoting nutrition in the workplace

“We’re always less resistant to adding things in,” she adds, emphasizing the importance of choice even if that means unhealthy foods will still be available.

In the IWK’s case, MacDonald says while there were some negative reactions at first, the hydration station has turned out to be popular, with no revenue loss for the hospital so far. “Believe it or not, there are some people who’ve never had water that they liked,” she says.

IWK was the winner in the health and wellness program category at Benefits Canada‘s 2015 Workplace Benefits Awards. The 2016 awards will be held on Oct. 20. Stay tune on Twitter to find out which companies are being recognized this year.

Glenn Kauth is the editor of Benefits Canada.

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