Flexibility is on the top of Vanessa Sauve’s workplace wellness program wish list.

As a registered nurse with Alberta Health Services in Edmonton, Alta., she finds that shift length, which is often 12 hours, can be a barrier to taking even a 15-minute lunch break, let alone participating in her employer’s wellness program.

The AHS’s wellness offerings are great, she says, but “most people who take advantage of them are administrative and managerial because they’re not looking after patients, so they can be more flexible with getting away and taking advantage of that stuff.”

Read: What are the ingredients of a successful wellness program?

Nurses, on the other hand, are stuck. “When you have a sick patient, you’re not going to go do yoga,” she adds.

Barbara Bubyn, a pharmacy technician in Moose Jaw, Sask., says her ideal wellness program would remove barriers, require fewer hoops to jump through and be easier to navigate. “There are barriers all over the place, barriers and restrictions to what you can access or what you can get reimbursed [for].”


While 41% of plan sponsors said they offered a wellness program in 2018, that percentage is down from 51% in 2017 and a high of 64% in 2013, according to the 2018 Sanofi Canada health-care survey.

It also found the reasons plan sponsors don’t offer wellness programs include:

Cost and affordability

Organization size

They don’t need it

Lack of employee interest

Lack of time

Even a simple change, like being allowed to pick the gym she uses, would be welcome, adds Bubyn. “[My employer] does offer incentives for people to join the gym, but again, it’s restricted to which gyms. You have to go to the gyms they’ve negotiated, so you don’t have the freedom to just go [anywhere]. And what if I want a personal trainer?”

Meeting the needs of employees

In 2019, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study looking at the effects of workplace wellness programs on employee health and economic outcomes. It found employees who were exposed to these programs reported “significantly greater rates of some positive health behaviours compared with those who were not exposed.”

However, the study also found no significant effects on clinical measures of health, health-care spending and utilization or employment outcomes.

Read: Look and measure before leaping into a workplace wellness program

If employees had more — or all — of a say on the design of their wellness programs, offerings would be more meaningful and usage rates would rise. Indeed, it’s important to take employees’ perspectives into account, says Sean Raible, director of total rewards, health and well-being at Vancouver City Savings Credit Union. “We do a lot of focus groups, engagement surveys and polls to get information from our employees on how we design stuff. So I think it’s paramount not to be designing these things without input.”

Reverend Adam Hanley of the United Church of Canada agrees, noting if employees could develop a program that meets their needs, they could focus on the offerings they care about. “Whether it needs to have a mental-health focus or a financial well-being focus, the focus of the wellness program would be reflected by the needs and desires of the employees.”

Employees also value the customization of plan structure and process, says Diana Sherifali, associate professor in the school of nursing at McMaster University. “Do they want access to a pharmacist? Do they want access to a nurse, . . . a dietitian, all of the above or one or two of them? If they could customize the structure, [that would be] fantastic.”

Read: Majority of staff value personalization in group benefits plans

Individualization is imperative to ensuring a program has meaning, she adds. Otherwise, it becomes another generic program and employees will tune out. “Some people don’t like the technology [apps], some people prefer using a coach,” says Sherifali. “But I think that speaks to the whole piece of individualization . . . . How can we best support people?”

It also come downs to fairness, says Raible. “In terms of accessibility, different abilities — we really think about invisible/visible disabilities here at Vancity. So how do you make sure a wellness program is designed so that it’s inclusive of everybody? That’s going to be a very important piece to employees.”

Alethea Spiridon is managing editor of Benefits Canada.