Making It Work: Now more than ever, your staff need a strong wellness program

Resilient businesses require resilient employees. Here's how to keep yours on their game.

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Be mindful of your employees’ physical and mental wellness amid the disruptions of COVID-19

Resilient businesses require resilient employees. Here’s how to keep yours on their game

“Since the pandemic, we’ve seen a few shifts in how organizations are approaching employee well-being,” says Alissa Gillanders, a wellness program specialist at the Vancouver office of professional services giant Aon. First, employers are making wellness a priority, “with an increased focus on mental health, emotional fitness and resiliency,” Gillanders explains.

Second, with more staff working remotely, there’s an effort to make wellness programs accessible to everyone online, she adds. The third shift: “Organizations that have been slow adopters are making well-being a priority.” Finally, employers want to understand the full scope of programs and resources available through their benefit providers and other partners, Gillanders says. “They’re also looking at leveraging free community resources and offerings.”

We asked Gillanders and Jon Chescoe, founder and principal consultant of Langley-based Ascension Benefits, for some tips on building a strong wellness program in the COVID era.

Meet employees where they’re at. “Every single person will have different needs,” Chescoe says. “Finding a way to address those specific needs is paramount for the performance and profitability of an organization and for the people who work in it.”

Create a holistic program. It should be “well rounded and include all dimensions of well-being, such as physical, emotional, social and financial,” Gillanders says. Employers should also understand the connections between those elements—for example, the physical impact of emotional well-being.

Start with motivation. “For someone to make a change in their life, there needs to be an inspiration point,” Chescoe argues. “So the three-pronged approach that we take is inspiration and motivation, education and support.”

Evaluate your well-being offerings. Employers should “ensure that access to care is within their strategies and make sure they’re providing the right tools and resources to support their employees’ mental health,” Gillanders advises.

Look at the claims in your group benefits plan. Keeping in mind that this information is confidential, Chescoe says, you “can get a pretty good understanding of what issues may inherently be in the group.”

Ask staff what they want to see. “Understanding what types of programs are of interest and of value to the employee will help gain their buy-in and allow the employer to focus their resources,”
Gillanders says.

Seek regular feedback. Opportunities include employee interest surveys, post-event polls and focus groups, notes Gillanders, who recommends a full survey only every two or three years. “You could do yearly pulse surveys on specific topics.”

Remember: one size doesn’t fit all. “If you do a cookie-cutter type of approach, you’ll get a cookie-cutter type of response,” Chescoe says.

No time like the present

Before COVID-19 struck, Geoff Soloway had watched another crisis unfold. “We were already headed toward a growing incidence of poor mental health in our society,” says the founder of MindWell-U Training. “Now all of this additional stress and anxiety and uncertainty is triggering all of us and exacerbating our mental health concerns.”

Employee assistance programs, however, often take a reactive approach to mental well-being, Soloway maintains. “We need to think more proactively,” he says. “We need to provide people with the skills and strength to rebound and be resilient in the face of what’s to come.”

To that end, Victoria-based MindWell has provided online mindfulness training to some 60,000 people, for clients in Canada and the U.S. ranging from PwC to the Toronto Stock Exchange, since it launched in 2016. “What mindfulness helps us do is to see what’s happening right now and what’s a skilful next step,” Soloway says.

There’s evidence that MindWell’s training works. In a study across five organizations with UBC Sauder School of Business, the company found that its program led to “significant increases in resilience, performance, qualities of leadership like humility and authenticity, as well as decreases in burnout and stress,” Soloway says.

When employees are focused, happy and doing meaningful work, they’re more innovative and creative, he adds. There’s also a financial payoff: in a 2019 Deloitte study of 10 Canadian companies with workplace mental health programs, the median annual return for each dollar spent over three years was $1.62, rising to $2.18 for initiatives that had been place longer.

Keep in mind

Pre-COVID, 1 in 5 Canadians experienced a mental health problem or illness in any given year, the Canadian Mental Health Association reports. By age 40, about 50% of the population will have or have had a mental illness.