How to build effective wellness programs

Corporate wellness initiatives have moved beyond simply providing discounts to gyms and offering healthy options in the cafeteria. While these changes are valuable, increasingly, employees expect more from their company’s wellness program.

But how does an employer develop an offering that targets the needs of employees, motivates them and positively impacts the financials—all while winning the support of upper management?

Benefits Canada sat down with industry experts at this year’s Workplace Health & Benefits Awards gala to share experiences and new ways for companies to create meaningful and effective wellness programs.

Launching wellness
When a company is considering initiatives to improve employee health, where is the best place to start?

“To address an organization’s health, there must be a clear understanding of its current issues and trends,” says Kirk McIntyre, vice-president, group business, Ontario, with Medavie Blue Cross. “To do that, look at existing data for your organization. For example, the top 10 drugs prescribed under the organization’s drug benefits program may help to identify a leading health issue affecting employees.” These so-called loss drivers can help shape a program by identifying where the employees seem to need help with their health.

Health metrics—the vast amount of data on employees’ health issues—can be an overwhelming and intimidating place to start, says Lori Casselman, assistant vice-president, health and wellness, with Sun Life Financial. Annie Boulianne, director, pension and benefits, with Shoppers Drug Mart, says the challenge with metrics is gathering all of the data together from the different sources. “Getting the information relating to the different diseases, as the information typically comes from different sources, and managing the information together is tough. Most people don’t have the time to look at all of the data to do a full analysis,” she says. Casselman advises that employers that are looking to take the right steps start with at least one metric—such as the demographic profile of the company, the attendance rates or the engagement scores—and look at the trend into the future. “What is the cost of doing nothing as your population ages and the cost of providing support continues to increase? What are the key drivers from a risk perspective? Finding manageable pieces of data that will resonate with the organization may be more valuable than struggling with all of the metrics,” she says.

Knowing your organization’s numbers is important, but trying to understand the story they tell is of greater value, says Estelle Morrison, director of health management at Ceridian. “We are better at compiling metrics into one report, but I don’t know that we’re better at telling a story behind the data. When we see high use of medication for antidepressants, low STD [short term disability] for mental health and high EAP [employee assistance program] use, what does that mean? We need to get really good at telling a single, cohesive story,” she says.

Fanny Karolev, manager of worklife health and wellness with Campbell Company of Canada, says that once she’s armed with those valuable data, she surveys her employee population. “We ask them what they want, not just what they need. It might be a completely different thing. We try to marry those two things to create opportunities to attack the loss drivers and to improve their health overall,” she says.

Paula Fernandes, HR manager with DOT Integrated Financial, agrees that reviewing data and surveying employees is an ideal starting point. “Just sending out the survey asking what employees wanted was a big morale booster. It shows we’re listening to them and want to know how they feel,” she says. Another key piece for DOT Integrated Financial was creating a wellness committee comprised solely of employees, without management representation. “That’s really what’s driven the whole wellness program and why it’s been so successful. The committee does the research, puts together a strategy and a budget, and then it talks to their colleagues about it,” says Fernandes.

Wellness committees appear to be a critical part of starting a health strategy in an organization. Rhona Green, vice-president of HR with Marine Atlantic Inc., says its program didn’t really take off until its committee got involved in the process. Jennifer Moore, director of HR and organizational development with Dufferin Child and Family Services, says her organization’s wellness committee is made up of employees in each department. “Whenever we have an initiative going on, we have someone in each department who is promoting it and starting the conversation with people who might not otherwise engage,” she says. Committees are a way to invite employees to co-create their wellness programs, as well as a strategy to boost participation and a way to hear valuable feedback about programs.

Another tool for collecting data about health issues and feedback from employees is the health risk assessment (HRA) form. Green says it was information from HRAs that helped to shape its wellness programming. “We started getting the actual feedback from the HRA about what the employees really wanted. Our planning wasn’t driven by the need to offer a ‘flavour of the day’ program,” she says. This type of approach helps employers to create programs that are employee needs-driven and will, ideally, increase participation rates.

Measuring wellness
Tailoring an initiative to the needs of employees can help create a valuable and effective program, but if an HR team is not measuring the program, they won’t be able to report its success to senior management. Engagement rates, focus groups and program participation are all valuable tools for measurement.

“I think engagement scores are extremely critical and a good place to start,” says Leanne MacFarlane, senior director of business development with MHCSI. However, she adds, HR managers must also make sure the message of wellness inside the company is a credible one. Alison Cocking, manager, organizational wellness, with the University Health Network (UHN), agrees that engagement scores are hugely important to her organization. “It’s measured in our employee opinion survey every year in a composite of five questions that are all value-based. I think it’s probably the most important statistic that our CEO looks at. You can’t base any action plans on those specific questions, but it’s really a key indicator about how emotionally attached to the UHN the employees feel, whether they find personal meaning in their work and are motivated to commit the time and effort to help the organization,” she says.

Adrienne Sutton, director of operations with Tri Fit Inc., encourages clients to get employees talking as a way to measure a program’s success. “Often, on surveys, you get a lot of ticking the box, but not a lot of valuable comments. Getting a group of people in a room to ask questions and get really specific feedback around wellness initiatives provides you with things that you can actually take back and work on,” she says. Karolev knows her programs are working through engagement scores and participation rates, but also through anecdotal evidence. At Campbell’s, the president or a vice-president has a soup lunch with about 15 different employees in different areas across the organization on a regular basis. “In looking at our wellness program, the feedback I’ve received through these lunches is that 100% of the people say the wellness initiative is what engages them. There is no measurement on that, but it is a really serious validation.”

Randy McGlynn, CEO of the Ontario Teachers Insurance Plan (OTIP), says participation in the wellness events is a measurement that his team uses. “We have a wellness month with different activities each day, and there is also a wellness fair. We monitor the attendance to see if the interest that we believe is there is reflected,” he says.

A strong culture of engagement is a benefit of a wellness program. But it can also be used to improve the wellness program itself. Basil Rowe, vicepresident of total rewards and shared services with Shoppers Drug Mart, did just that with the company’s most recent wellness program. “When we rolled out the first stage of our new program, we did a pulse survey check at launch and six months post-launch to see how our program was being received,” he says. Rowe’s team also leveraged internal resources. It relied on its strong marketing team to help interpret the survey results and tweak the next stage based on employees’ feedback. This kept the wellness program relevant, which means the employees continue to participate.

Barriers to wellness
To run a successful wellness program, HR teams must first overcome a number of challenges, including adequate resources, buy-in from senior management and how well a program matches company culture.

“Resources is the obvious challenge to a wellness initiative,” says Cocking. “I don’t think any of us feel that we’ve got enough resources.” To overcome challenges with funding, Fernandes says DOT Integrated Financial runs activities—such as paying $2 to dress down on a Friday—to raise funds for programs. Gord Croucher, associate director, private sector, with Pfizer, suggests that those with less funds reach out to colleges and universities to take on students in co-op placements to help run programs.

Securing senior management support was one of the main barriers the roundtable attendees raised. “The commitment of senior management to wellness programs is crucial. If an organization is going to invest in a wellness strategy, it needs to own it and live it,” says McIntyre. “For example, at Medavie Blue Cross, our CEO is a committed runner who often speaks about the importance exercise plays in overall wellness. While not every CEO has to be a runner, by leading through example, management can motivate employees by demonstrating the value and commitment that it places on wellness.”

Chris Camp is the chair of the board of trustees for the Halifax Firefighters Benefits Trust. He faces a unique challenge with getting senior management buy-in because his organization is separate from the municipal benefits plan. The board of trustees has been able to reduce dependence on heart-related prescriptions through an employee-run healthy heart program. “We are having difficulty getting middle and upper management buy-in because it’s not the plan of the city,” he explains. He says both sides could reap benefits from programs regardless of whose plan it is. Camp also chairs a health and wellness committee that participates in discussions concerning a peer critical incidence stress team to manage firefighters’ reaction to emergency situations. “It’s been extremely successful,” he says. “To date, we’ve had no LTD claims for mental health disability from traumatic emergency scenes, which is impressive considering our occupation.” However, because of its success, Camp is having a hard time convincing senior management that there are more issues that should be addressed. “We want to implement proactive health programs in our workplaces but have difficulty getting support from those we need to achieve this.”

Karen Seward, executive vice-president with Morneau Shepell, suggests that Camp show two costs for his benefits plan—disability and drugs—to the management team. “If that were any other expense line, the business people would pay attention to it. It’s a cost, and it becomes a business issue,” she says. Another option, says Morrison, is for Camp to consider what happens if the trust doesn’t continue with or launch new programs. “What is the cost of not doing something? Look at the trending for disease states and consider just letting everything go as is. People will get older and go through natural changes with the aging process. Then show what the associated health costs are for ‘doing nothing,’ ” she says. It’s also a good practice to support your employee data with public health research, says Casselman.

One of the barriers to creating an effective program is culture. Many of the roundtable attendees agreed that if the culture of the organization is not aligned with the program, it won’t work. “If you don’t have a culture that supports wellness, you may have to be a little more selective about your approach,” says Kim MacFarlane, product director with Manulife Financial. “It may require a gradual shift from the culture you have today to the culture you want. You probably need to evaluate where you are today, how the organization works and plan where you would like to be. You need to recognize how your organization works and what you need to do to remove any cultural barriers to achieving the goals of your wellness program,” she says.

After employers get through their own challenges, they must address the barriers that employees run into when trying to participate in a wellness program. “Commonly, what we hear from employees is that the biggest barriers are lack of time, lack of motivation and lack of energy,” says Sutton. “For employers, it’s about making those choices easier and available for employees, and that includes being flexible enough to accommodate employees.” But the biggest barrier for employees, says Seward, is that they do not know which programs to use. “When someone actually has a problem, they have no idea of the support that is available because we call the programs by their names. There is a huge opportunity to educate people for the right care at the right time and accessing the right service for the right issue,” she says.

It’s clear that despite the potential value corporate wellness programs create for both employees and companies, there are a number of challenges to creating a strategically planned initiative. To get through these challenges, programs need to be employee-centric. Those that are developed using a company’s own health metrics, data from their own employee HRAs and input from an employee wellness committee lead to positive results. If your company is looking for a place to start, look to your employees.

This roundtable took place at Benefits Canada’s 2011 Workplace Health & Benefits Awards gala. Get a PDF of this article and other gala coverage.

Leigh Doyle is a freelance writer based in Toronto.