Tending the roots of employee wellness: A look at workplace gardens

For many people, gardening is a hobby reserved for winding down after a busy workday or week. It can be a good way to exercise, connect with the environment, relieve stress and eventually enjoy the fruits of their labour.

But in a bid to foster health and wellness, get employees moving and increase productivity, Winnipeg-based Canada Drugs has brought the benefits of horticulture into the workplace, establishing an on-site garden two summers ago as the focal point of its wellness efforts.

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“We’re really trying to promote wellness, and with the outdoor gardening . . . it works on many fronts,” says Evelyn Mayor, director of human resources at Canada Drugs, whose 200 employees operate an online pharmacy. “First of all, they’re out in the fresh air, they’re getting the vitamin D from the sunshine and they’re toiling in the soil, which is good for the soul. They’re conversing, they’re making decisions on the plants, so they’re feeling good about that.”

Gardening is an employee-led activity from start to finish — planting, weeding, watering and harvesting — and everyone can take a break during their workday to participate in it. About five or six employees participate in the initial planting, with a few others joining to help with tending and harvesting. One employee in particular has taken a lead role by putting together information on the garden. And every payday, the staff enjoy the end products at company-sponsored barbecues.

The outside company that built the wood-raised garden structure still comes in to deliver plants, educate employees on what to grow and how to care for their garden, says Mayor.

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The on-site garden is an integral part of a larger wellness strategy at Canada Drugs. It includes monthly employee educational sessions on financial or wellness-related topics; a new health risk assessment app; healthy offerings at vending machines; digital health coaching; and a fitness committee that promotes various events.

While the company plans to track the overall impact of its health promotion efforts over time, Mayor says that anecdotally, the gardening program has already had an impact on employee health and productivity in a largely call centre-based workforce that sees a disproportionate incidence of Type 2 diabetes.

“We’re just trying to encourage health and well-being in the workplace and we do see that people are energized,” says Mayor. “We have seen that it really has made a difference in the workplace, even from what they’re saying, how happy they are.”

‘Accessible to everybody’

Mark Tisdale, director of wellness at McFadden Benefits & Pension Ltd., says an outdoor garden is a great kickoff to an organization’s program. “The outdoor garden, the gardening initiative itself, is probably the most inclusive, powerful experience that I think an employer can provide for their people,” he says.

“And it’s totally accessible to everybody,” he adds.

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“You don’t have to be fit, you don’t have to be making a life change, you don’t have to be doing anything really differently. You just go to a session, plant a few plants, learn about how to grow plants and then a lot of people will just learn how to become more confident with it at home, too.”

While the garden is working well, Mayor notes the company plans to look at ways of improving it every year. This year, for example, an employee suggestion to consider making fresh vegetables available throughout the year led to the installation of an indoor hydroponics unit. It allows employees to grow organic vegetables and herbs, including lettuce, spinach, arugula, basil, cilantro and sage.

Although the idea of workplace gardening is at an early stage, Tisdale says it’s a concept that every organization can implement. “Whether it’s root vegetables or . . . fruits and tomatoes and cucumbers and zucchinis, there’s something you can grow in just about any workplace.”

Helen Burnett-Nichols is a freelance writer based in Hamilton, Ont.

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