© Copyright 2006 Rogers Publishing Ltd. The following article first appeared in the December 2005 edition of BENEFITS CANADA magazine.
Adapt and prosper: Health, Work & Wellness Conference
Workplace health and culture are the keys to profitability in the new world of work.
By Don Bisch

As the nature of work changes, employers need to take different approaches to maintaining the health and productivity of their workforces. That was the key message to come out of the 2005 Health Work and Wellness Conference, held in Montreal last month.

“The work week is getting longer, and the work world is becoming more and more demanding,” said Jean-Pierre Brun, professor in the Faculty of Business Administration at Université Laval in Quebec City, during his keynote presentation. This, said Brun, is taking a toll. “You may not burn out next week, but there will be a cumulative effect.”

In addition to the rising volume of work, Brun added there are other shifts taking place. For one, service jobs are on the increase while blue-collar manufacturing jobs are diminishing. At the same time, more Canadians are working on contract and are being forced to “accumulate jobs” to make ends meet.

These changes are creating a shift in the types of health risks that are driving absenteeism, disability and lost productivity. The traditional health risks are being replaced by what Brun calls “virtual risks,” such as information overload, computer usage and workplace violence. In today’s work world, these “virtual risks” are responsible for most of the health-related costs that employers are being forced to bear. But these health costs can be difficult to measure.

To illustrate, Brun gave the example of presenteeism— when employees physically show up for work, but operate at less than 100% productivity due to an underlying mental or physical illness—which he said accounts for 75% of health-related costs.

“People come in even when they’re sick,” he said. When asked why they showed up for work when they were sick, most employees will provide such excuses as: “There’s a client that counts on me,” or “I don’t want my colleagues to do extra work,” said Brun.

To address this new breed of health risk factors, employers need to “focus on people, not just budgets,” he said, adding that the most efficient organizations are those that allow employees to participate in decision making, that provide support for teams and that recognize employees who’ve done a good job.

Relationships are key, he added, noting that “quality exchanges” between employees and their supervisors bring the greatest payoff in terms of improved health and productivity. Using a pyramid diagram to illustrate, Brun showed how manager interaction can range from quality discussions with employees at the top of the pyramid, to emails, which are less effective, at the bottom.

“You have to bring your leaders closer to their employees,” said Brun, pointing out that too many managers engage in ‘industrial tourism:’ making superficial rounds of the shop floor on a periodic basis.

Another speaker, Graham Lowe from the Great Place to Work Institute Canada in Kelowna, B.C., reiterated that workplace relationships are key to boosting employee health and productivity.

The Institute’s Great Places to Work Model outlines five different qualities which a healthy workforce fosters in its workplace. Among those characteristics, said Lowe, is fairness.

“Compensation levels are not what make people unhappy about their jobs,” he said. “Being as forthright and even-handed in that process is critical.” The other attributes of great places to work include: credibility, respect, pride and camaraderie, said Lowe, providing examples of organizations that embody these values. At Harley Davidson, for instance, managers’ offices don’t have doors.

For those who deny a solid connection between employee happiness and an organization’s profitability, the numbers say otherwise, said Graham. He pointed out that, if you invested in publicly traded companies on Fortune magazine’s annual list of 100 Best Companies to Work For between 1998 and 2004, you would have realized a return of 15.6%, compared with a 4.8% return if you invested in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index during the same period.

One company that’s realized the payoff that comes with happy employees is SAS, a software company based in Cary, N.C. with 9,500 employees worldwide. The company had $1.5 billion in revenue in 2004, and has been profitable each of its 29 years in existence.

The reason for the company’s success has been its focus on people and providing them with a healthy workplace environment, said Jeff Chambers, vice-president of human resources at SAS. Among the benefits and services provided to employees are on-site child-care centres and camps for 1,000 children of employees, on-site fitness facilities and an on-site work/life centre. In addition to social workers who can help find eldercare for employees’ aging parents, the centre offers such on-site convenience benefits as UPS shipping, a hair salon, massage, dry cleaning, a seamstress, and an auto service.

“If you take burdens off your employees, they’re going to be more productive when they’re at work. [These services] save us more on productivity than they cost,” said Chambers, noting that the company realizes $75 million in estimated productivity savings every year.

He’s quick to point out that profits, not altruism, are the motive behind a healthy and happy workforce. “We do it because it helps us make money, it helps us service our customers… We’re in the intellectual property business.”


The 2005 Health Work and Wellness Conference featured presentations by a number of organizations, outlining their strategies and best-practices for building a healthy and productive workforce. The following are highlights from a presentation by Judy Kerling, a healthy workplace specialist for the Region of Peel.

The organization:
Comprised of the cities of Mississauga and Brampton and the Town of Caledon, the Region of Peel is one of Ontario’s fastest growing municipalities. It has over 4,000 employees, unionized and non-unionized, working from over 50 sites.

The program:
The Healthy Workplace Initiative began in 2001 using the National Quality Institute(NQI)Healthy Workplace model as its guide. The region’s executive management team makes up its Healthy Workplace Council and has signed its new healthy workplace policy. The policy states the Region of Peel’s commitment to the requirements under the Ontario Health and Safety Act, and to the NQI definition of a healthy workplace.

The methods:
The Region has conducted a comprehensive employee satisfaction survey every year since 2002. The survey measures “quality of worklife,” the drivers of which are: workload, communication, immediate supervisor, and middle and senior management support. Responses from the survey are used to develop actions to address the drivers.

Training is offered to supervisors and managers on how to manage mental health; identifying and addressing stress levels in staff; coaching skills and other leadership development; and health and safety issues. All employees can take advantage of training programs in stress management and achieving work-life balance. All supervisors, managers and directors have received orientation about employee assistance program(EAP)services so that they can better support staff. And human resources policies have been developed in the areas of scheduling work hours and flex time in order to support staff to meet the demands of work and home life.

The Region has also initiated numerous other healthy workplace strategies: health and safety training; healthy lifestyle promotion, such as physical activity campaigns; Meeting Well, an effective meetings strategy; ergonomics; and occupation health nursing support to ensure a safe and timely return to work following injury or illness.

The results:
The Region’s survey from last year showed that 81% of employees feel the Region is committed to a healthy workplace. An added benefit: this year, the employeepaid long-term disability premiums were reduced by 23% due to the reduction in long-term disability claims.

Don Bisch is editor of BENEFITS CANADA. Don.Bisch@rci.rogers.com.