Employers take creative approach to wellness programs on ‘shoestring’ budgets

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When employees are young and often working remotely, and when the wellness budget is non-existent, human resources managers have to be creative to ensure employees get a healthy balance at work.

The vehicle history company Carproof, for example, began its wellness program in 2012 with a weight-loss contest, said Heather Coy-Robinson, the company’s human resources manager, at the 2017 Benefits and Pension Summit in Toronto on Tuesday.

Thirty per cent of the workforce competed to see who could lose the most weight and, since there was no budget, each staff member paid to play. The top loser got to keep 80 per cent of the pot and the runner-up kept the rest. Results were impressive: employees became healthier and more engaged, and as an unexpected benefit, the proportion of smokers dropped from 30 per cent of employees down to five per cent.

Carproof’s wellness initiatives have increased since then and now include structured programming, employee input through a volunteer committee, awards and two surveys a year to analyze engagement and success levels. In the last six years, the company has had no long-term disability claims.

Two popular programs, according to Coy-Robinson, were a Fitbit challenge and a ‘chum’ challenge. In the first, which had a 64 per cent take-up rate, employees set step goals and if they achieved them, the company would reimburse their Fitbit purchase. In the second, which had a 45 per cent take-up rate, employees partnered with a colleague and picked up a healthy habit, either food- or exercise-based, to participate in together for a month.

Lakeside Process Controls, an automation solution company based in Mississauga, Ont., developed its wellness program in a similar way to Carproof. It began with a weight-loss challenge in 2010, in which 90 employees participated and collectively lost 803 pounds, said Stephanie Enright, director of talent management and administration at Lakeside, at the event.

Furthermore, half of the participants saw their blood pressure, glucose levels and cholesterol levels drop after the challenge. To build on employees’ enthusiasm for active living, Enright said the organization is planning a variety of events, including a team entry into the Tough Mudder obstacle race. She also organizes events to boost healthy eating, such as a guacamole challenge to discourage eating processed foods and teach basic cooking skills, and to boost mental health, such as knitting workshops and paint nights.

At the beginning, Lakeside’s wellness programming was also on a “shoestring budget,” said Enright. So she trained as a yoga instructor to avoid having to hire one for lunchtime lessons.

The wellness strategies have seen results: Lakeside has had no long-term disability claims in the past nine years and it’s saved $140,000 in renegotiated premiums because employees were significantly healthier. “There is a hard financial bottom-line impact we can make in the organization in terms of wellness,” Enright said. And because of the programs’ demonstrated success, Lakeside now budgets $113 per employee per year for wellness activities.

But these programs have seen setbacks as well. Carproof’s Coy-Robinson noted free programs don’t tend to go over well and said she’s learned it’s better to charge a small fee to ensure employees are invested. She also found that daytime activities tend to go over better with employees.

Enright noted some of Lakeside’s older employees complained the programming was targeting millennials and left them out, so she asked them what they’d like to see and then began more nutrition and mental-health programming to include employees with physical limitations.

Lakeside has also had four short-term disability claims in the last two years, two of which were tied to mental health, so Enright has boosted mental-health programming to try to combat that.

Both companies also have a significant number of employees who work remotely, and Coy-Robinson and Enright noted how important it is to include these employees in wellness programming. Carproof sends health and wellness care packages to traveling sales representatives and also paid for them to access online yoga classes, for example. And Lakeside aims to schedule wellness events during times when remote workers are in the main office.

Transcontinental Media G.P.