University Health Network was the recipient of the Employer Award (1,000+ employees) for Benefits Canada’s 2011 Workplace Health & Benefits Awards.

It seems reasonable to assume that people working in healthcare would be more health-conscious than others. But hectic schedules, long hours and working in a stressful environment can make it difficult for staff to focus on their  personal health. “It’s definitely a challenge to get people to pay attention when they work 12-hour shifts and may have significant commute time on top of that,” says Alison Cocking, manager of workplace wellness at the University Health Network (UHN) in Toronto.

Luckily, Cocking was up for such a challenge in 2007 when she and her team designed and launched a new wellness department at the UHN, an organization that oversees three downtown hospital sites. Over the past four years, the UHN’s Oasis Wellness Centre’s team has worked diligently to spread the word that it is critical for staff to pay attention to their own health and safety. Today, 190 programs and 600 individual classes—on everything from yoga and relaxation techniques to fitness and nutrition—are helping to teach caregivers how to care for themselves.

The vision for creating a department focused on wellness came out of a health risk assessment survey done in 2006, and, right from the beginning, senior leadership supported the plan to make wellness a core value at the organization. “Our mandate the first year was to promote the program and get as many people in the door as possible,” says Cocking, noting that by the third year, about 5,500 people—50% of the UHN’s full-time and part-time staff—had participated, whether just by getting a massage or by coming in time and again for various programs.

To target the tough-to-reach front-line staff, Cocking developed the Nurses Toolbox, an eight-week program that goes directly to the clinical floors to allow busy nurses and clinical staff to take time during their shift to stretch, strengthen and practice relaxation.

Offered in two 20-minute sessions, trainers have learned to be flexible if the situation on the floor is stressful or if staff are suddenly too busy to attend, says Cocking. Despite uncooperative schedules, more than 450 UHN staff take part in the Toolbox sessions.

Cocking admits that the hardest part of promoting wellness is keeping people engaged. But she and her team at Oasis Wellness Centre keep coming up with ideas to keep the approach fresh and ever-expanding to meet staff’s needs. The Inter-Hospital Challenge, for example, started as a month-long competition across the UHN’s three sites where participants were encouraged to increase and monitor physical activity levels, eating habits and the use of stress reduction techniques. More than 400 teams participated in the first year, and the challenge has since expanded to include all hospitals that belong to the Ontario Hospital Association.

Although the impact of wellness programs isn’t always measurable, one 12-month program targeted at front-line clinical staff with specific health risks did show savings of $583 per person per year based on absenteeism and benefits costs alone.

“Knowing we are able to reach people and help them understand the importance of eating right, exercising and managing stress is exciting,” says Cocking. “Every day, we hear a good-news story about how our programs have affected someone’s life.”

Sonya Felix is a freelance writer based in St. Catharines, Ont.

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Copyright © 2020 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in Benefits Canada.

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