© Copyright 2006 Rogers Publishing Ltd. The following article first appeared in the July 2005 edition of BENEFITS CANADA magazine.
SAS..not SOS
Tech firm SAS says it helps employees juggle priorities, take time out and live better lives…
By Caroline Cakebread

“Sharpen your sword and you’ll be able to cut much faster.” So says Seta Kouyoumdjian, director of human resources at the Toronto offices of leading global software provider, SAS Institute(Canada)Inc. Kouyoumdjian is not referring to swordfighting: she’s talking about how SAS encourages employees to battle stress by taking time to relax, rejuvenate and recharge their batteries. “If you’re not feeling well, you can’t do your job,” Kouyoumdjian says, underscoring the bottom line behind the push for stress management in the workplace: a stronger, healthier business. Voted one of the best companies to work for by both Macleans in Canada and Forbes in the U.S., SAS has made major strides in helping employees manage stress and fighting the constant battle to balance the conflicting priorities staff face on a daily basis.

SAS offers perks to its employees like fitness facilities, cash rewards and even a nap room, because the company knows that encouraging its employees to balance their personal and work lives will ultimately contribute to their happiness—and the success of the company. Happy employees, says Kouyoumdjian, result in a positive customer experience. And, according to SAS, it means they stick around; she says the company has an attrition rate of just 11%—well below the average industry rate of 30%.

“We all juggle three balls: work, personal commitments, and you as a person,” she points out. While many employees seem able to balance business and family obligations, their personal needs all too often fall through the cracks. And that can lead to stress down the road. This is why SAS encourages employees to take time out during the work-day. The nap room helps, along with fitness facilities to help them keep in shape and avoid the high costs of private gym memberships. SAS also provides a shuttle bus from its offices to the Eaton’s Centre every day at lunchtime to give employees time to shop and relax.

And it offers a shuttle bus service to Union Station before and after work to cut down on the time employees spend commuting. “People with families have enough to do at the end of the day,” says Kouyoumdjian, who notes that a large proportion of SAS’s workforce is quite young: the average age is around 27, she estimates. “Between picking up the kids and cooking the meals, there’s enough for them to do after work.”

Giving employees time and space to nurture their own needs during the day can foster good mental health and help them manage stress. So she spends a lot of time researching new and improved ways to help employees help themselves—without the added stress of trying to cram everything into their personal time in the evenings and on weekends. She’s particularly proud of the fact SAS gives employees one day a quarter to volunteer: something that boosts their self-esteem and helps them give back to the community.

It’s something employees appreciate: even with a competitive salary on offer, SAS finds new employees are making lifestyle much more of a priority in the search for employment. Kouyoumdjian notes this is a major shift from the work-crazed, high burn-out work environments that characterized the technology industry at the end of 1990s. “That pace is unsustainable for most,” she says. “That’s what young people in the technology industry are finding out.” In contrast, SAS is careful about overtime. It offers unlimited sick days and doesn’t allow employees to carry over their vacation time. Overtime is also rewarded with time off and, in some cases, spa days paid for by SAS and taken during company hours. SAS has even been known to send flowers to employees’ spouses when long hours are keeping them away from home—a way of saying thank you and recognizing that the employee has a home life as well as an office life. And ultimately, that’s what it’s all about.