Employers promote competition, interactive booths and benefits information to engage employees in their wellness offerings

“Someone lasted seven minutes,” says Stephanie Enright, the Mississauga, Ont. company’s director of talent management and administration. “Our employees really like the competitiveness, and these activities help draw people to the health fair.”

Over the last decade, the organization’s health fair has grown significantly. In 2010, the inaugural event comprised four booths in the lunchroom. Today, the lunchroom and a nearby boardroom host more than 20 vendors featuring a range of health-focused activities and information.

Read: Lakeside Process Controls shows financial savings, healthier workforce in awards win

Half of Lakeside Process Controls’ workforce attends the health fair, which Enright attributes to the company’s structured wellness program and a fitness-oriented culture. “Our employees see the value in health promotion and we see it as well when it comes time to renegotiate our premiums.”

Across the country in Calgary, Husky Energy Inc’s Steve Sproule, manager of health, benefits and retirement, says the company’s health fair has also evolved over the years. His initial inspiration came from his own experience receiving a flu shot and waiting 15 minutes to ensure he had no reaction. “I thought the waiting time could be better utilized, perhaps with health promotion.”

When Sproule joined Husky Energy, he launched the annual health fair to coincide with flu shot season. “It’s worked out well. Now more people come to the fair and participate in wellness activities than get the vaccine.”

The health fair, which is now spread out over two days, also coincides with a wellness week, which kicks off with a keynote speaker and the distribution of fruit boxes to each of the organization’s kitchens. The health fair budget also goes towards paying for onsite health screenings.

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“Our team really pulls together and everyone is excited by the health fair,” says Sproule. “It’s a great platform to promote and raise awareness of what the company is doing in terms of benefits, financial wellness, [the employee assistance program] and numerous public health agencies. We want our employees to leave the fair not only with the feeling that the company cares about them, but also with resources and tools to support overall well-being.”

Start small and let it grow

Health and wellness fairs have become standard events at many workplaces. “It’s a way to have a positive impact on employees’ behaviour and reduce benefits costs,” says Christine Yerrill, senior customer success manager at Morneau Shepell Ltd. “If a health fair is good, it will reinforce good behaviour. You only need one per cent of the work population to change in order to see a financial impact.”

When an employer introduces a health fair, it can be tempting to go all out, but Sproule recommends starting small and letting the event grow. “One of the lessons we learned was to keep it manageable and to develop a consistent formula to guide the planning.”

Each year, Husky Energy’s wellness team chooses an overarching theme or slogan that can apply to physical, psychological and financial wellness. Indeed, identifying a theme can help plan sponsors focus their planning, says Jackie Riley, principal of Riley Workplace Wellness Consulting.

Read: How to implement a health screening program

A successful health fair has many moving parts, with the event’s location a top consideration. While small employers may think they don’t have enough space for a fair, Riley suggests creating a collaborative initiative with other employers located in the same industrial complex, office tower or strip mall. “You could set up in an airplane hangar, a large lunchroom, a gymnasium or a room at the local legion,” she says. “Depending on the weather, you could hold it outdoors with wedding tents.”

And inviting the company’s benefits providers is a good way to start. “It gives people an opportunity to find out more about their benefits,” says Yerrill. “For example, employees often view an EAP as something to use in a crisis, but if they can stop by a booth and see information about parenting and elder care, they can learn that the EAP can also prevent a crisis.”

Community-based vendors such as the Canadian Cancer Society, the Heart and Stroke Foundation, the Lung Association and the Canadian Mental Health Association can also round out a health fair’s offerings.

Make it fun and interactive

“The health fair concept has been around for a long time but it is not an old-fashioned concept. It can be whatever you want it to be,” says Riley. “Since there are so many generations working together these days, you can’t just speak to the boomers or generation X. Bring in some live music and offer something of interest to younger employees.”

ARE HEALTH FAIRS FALLING OUT OF FAVOUR?

When the 2016 Sanofi Canada health-care survey asked plan members which wellness programs they’d prefer, just 17% cited health and wellness fairs. This is compared to 41% who said flexible working arrangements, 38% who said healthy foods and snacks and 38% who said discounts for gym memberships.

Plan sponsor respondents were also less likely (12%) to offer health and wellness fairs. Instead, they said they prefer to address wellness through human resources policies (38%), healthy personal work spaces (36%) and flexible working arrangements (32%).

Interactive booths are key to drawing people in. “It could be as simple as throwing darts at balloons to win a prize, offering blood pressure readings or showing off a new app for dental benefits,” says Yerrill. “If people are engaged, they stay longer.”

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

Lakeside Process Controls creates its own interactive booths, including one on food safety, another with plants for the workplace garden and one where people ride a stationary bicycle to create enough energy to make a smoothie. While it’s a good idea to shake up the offerings each year, Enright advises keeping “fan favourites” that bring people in.

But it doesn’t have to be all fun and games. Husky Energy offers onsite health screenings, using drapes to create privacy. “We get reports back indicating percentages of those tested in healthy, moderate or high risk zones,” says Sproule, noting 564 employees received flu shots and 252 had biometric screenings at the organization’s 2019 fair.

“Although the vast majority of the screens have no health concerns, 17 letters were prepared for employees identified as high risk, suggesting they see their doctor for more testing.”

Evaluate and learn for next year

The most common way to evaluate the success of a health fair is to monitor attendance. At Lakeside Process Controls, the wellness team stuffs bags with health passports that employees take to each booth for vendors to sign. Employees with a full passport are entered into a raffle for vendor-supplied prizes.

Read: Home Hardware hosts health fairs to raise benefits awareness

“We can tell how many people came by the number of bags we hand out,” says Enright. “We also ask for feedback on the vendor mix and any other thoughts about the fair. I think it is the most positive feedback we ever get.”

She also notes that putting on a health fair gets easier each year. “You can build a framework over time and keep evolving and evaluating to get better every year.”

Sonya Felix is a Qualicum Beach, B.C.-based freelance writer.

Copyright © 2020 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in Benefits Canada.

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