Marine Atlantic Inc. was the recipient of the Health/Wellness Program Award (1,000+ employees) for Benefits Canada’s 2011 Workplace Health & Benefits Awards.

With an aging employee base and benefits costs rising, Marine Atlantic Inc. decided to really get serious about workplace wellness back in 2004. The marine transportation company, which provides ferry service between Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova

Scotia, already had an employee assistance program and held flu vaccine clinics, but it wasn’t enough, says Rhona Green, vicepresident of HR. “We saw that we needed a whole program to focus on preventing health problems for our employees.”

So in 2004, Marine Atlantic implemented the Medavie Blue Cross @live health risk assessment and clinical screenings as the beginning of a journey to foster a culture of wellness. Green knew that it wouldn’t be easy to motivate the 1,400 full-time and seasonal employees who work across Marine Atlantic’s various locations, including two-week-on and two-week-off shifts on the ferries. A few years earlier, she’d tried to introduce @live as a health promotion tool for employees. “I thought if I just advertised and put it out there, all would be great,” she says. “But it went nowhere. This time, we realized that wellness can’t be a top-down initiative; it has to be employee-driven.”

By creating an employee wellness committee in 2005, the wellness program became an employee initiative. Now the committee develops wellness strategies each year; promotes the health assessment tool; organizes clinics, health talks and biweekly weigh-ins; engages a fitness trainer; communicates via an intranet wellness site; and contributes to monthly articles in an employee newsletter.

“We started the first wellness challenge in 2006 and built up from there,” says Green. “We do relatively well with participation, and people look forward to the program. Some have told us that if it were not for the program, they wouldn’t have made changes in their behaviour.” The @live Wellness Challenge, which was launched in 2008, subjects participating teams and individuals to intense scrutiny of their health and lifestyle. Over six months, baseline, midpoint and end measurements are taken and calculated by team to come up with the overall score. Wellness points are accumulated for doing tasks related to fitness, work/life balance and volunteering, and individuals earn points for the team by making healthy choices. A wellness banquet is held at the end of the challenge, and there is a luncheon with prizes for the winners.

“We view our wellness program from a holistic perspective that extends to mental and emotional wellbeing,” says Green. “We know that support for the community through volunteer work and fundraising is important, too, and it has become a big part of our approach.”

Although the value of wellness at the individual level is difficult to measure, Green notes that what is measurable is positive. The number of employees who complete the health risk assessment or return to update their profile rises each year. Improved eating habits, exercise and stress management have helped to reduce the number of employees considered high risk from 18% in 2006 to 14% in 2010.

“This is truly about our employees,” says Green. “Without their drive and participation, we would never have achieved this award.”

Sonya Felix is a freelance writer based in St. Catharines, Ont. sfelix@cogeco.ca

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Copyright © 2019 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in Benefits Canada.

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