Sounding Board: Treating workplace as community enhances wellness initiatives

Many people find it difficult to determine the last time they were energized and fully engaged at work.

Increasing workloads and time pressures are adding stress to our working lives and driving us to look for more efficient ways to get the work done. This has translated into a push for more digital solutions. As we spend more time on screens, we spend less time in direct contact and socially interacting with each other. For many, work is becoming more isolating, uncertain and less engaging.

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We operate best, with the most creative energy, when we connect with those around us in a supportive community where we have some element of control. It helps us deal with the stress we all experience in and outside of work. However, the support mechanisms that help us build the resiliency necessary to manage the stress in our lives are being eroded in the drive for digital efficiency; we are forgetting the human element. This is contributing to a widespread rise in the stress people at all levels of an organization are experiencing with all of its negative consequences.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 80 per cent of all illness is stress-related. High levels of ongoing stress not only affect people’s health, it also hurts our mind’s capacity to work productively with others. It reduces our ability to concentrate, complete quantitative analysis, learn new material, communicate effectively and work collaboratively. The result is a less adaptable workplace in an increasingly dynamic economy.

According to Statistics Canada, more than 25 per cent of the Canadian workforce are severely stressed, and most of this stress is related to work. This is hurting employee health and productivity. The incidence of reported anxiety, depression and physical health conditions (i.e., heart disease, diabetes, etc.) continues to grow. By 2030, Statistics Canada projects the incidence of diabetes will double from present levels to more than 20 per cent, and mental-health issues will be the leading cause of disability.

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How do we improve the situation? Most companies recognize the importance of maintaining an engaged, healthy workforce. Employee benefits plans are widespread. However, most of these plans have been traditionally focused on treating people when they become sick rather than keeping them healthy and productive.

We are beginning to see the introduction of wellness programs, but most of these initiatives focus on providing low-cost, digital information-based solutions. This is a sound first step, but more needs to be done to have any real impact.

The workplace is a community. The better it works as a community, the more productive, healthy and engaged the workforce will become. This can be achieved by creating more opportunity for social connection, teamwork and common experience, ideally in a way that introduces an element of fun. To accomplish this goal, the workplace needs wellness initiatives that bring people together at work with a common goal, rather than simply providing individual support and information. People respond to what others are doing around them.

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After extensively testing workplace wellness concepts in 22 sites across Canada, not-for-profit organization ParticipACTION worked with its network of doctors, physical activity experts and participating workplaces to develop a more effective solution to the challenge of engaging employees to make positive changes in the way they live and work.

The resulting program, UPnGO, was designed to bring people together to support each other in making positive changes in their lives. It focuses on building healthy habits, such as movement throughout the day, which affect broad areas of an employee’s health to reduce health risks, manage stress, improve sleep, increase energy levels and enhance their ability to think and function productively at work.

Through effective leadership support and support of internal champions, UPnGO creates an environment that introduces an element of fun where healthy habits aren’t only accepted but expected, and workplace culture and engagement is positively reinforced through key support mechanisms that are often missing in today’s modern workplace.

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UPnGO acts as a catalyst that allows empowerment and inclusivity to grow within a workplace. The program helps employees achieve both personal and team health goals by sharing how to make healthy habits stick using practical tools and methods. This is accomplished through a platform that:

  • Combines digital tools with onsite support;
  • Serves as a community wellness hub;
  • Supports behaviour change with a program developed by physical activity and health experts; and
  • Offers a support process critical to maintaining employee participation and engagement over the long term.

The program can help improve productivity, workplace culture and employee engagement by strengthening the connection between movement during the workday and the brain’s cognitive function, creating a space for employees to tackle healthy habits together, and creating a culture where employers support the wellness of their employees everyday through fun, engaging, healthy habit-forming challenges, tools and education.

Michael Greenwood is a partner at Pelorus Benefits, an accountant and a triathlete with a deep interest in human performance within the workplace. Brad Gerard is the program director of UPnGO with ParticipACTION.