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6 tips to developing a workplace health and wellness program

By Leslee Mason

Workplace health and wellness programs are an investment in a company’s greatest asset — its workers. But how exactly do you go about implementing one? We talked to three health and safety pros for some of their expert tips.

1. Start from the top

Beyond the obvious need for funding, top-level support is critical to any program’s success. But prior to approaching senior management, it’s important to develop a business case. “You want to get the scope identified,” says Gerry Culina, manager of general health and safety services with the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS). “Who would be involved in this? Is this the department or a small group of people, interested parties within the organization or is this a company-wide initiative that you’re trying to initiate?” The business case should outline what you want to do, the scope of the project, people involved and the commitment required including time, money and other resources.

2. Create a committee

At Pratt & Whitney Canada, a global manufacturer of aircraft engines, committees are an integral part of various initiatives. “Our EHS management system is standardized,” explains Eric Boulé, director of environment, health and safety. “We have standards, we have programs — corporate requirements that we’re implementing in all our facilities.” At the local level, health and wellness committees work within the requirements to develop strategies and initiatives that work best for their facility. In the company’s Halifax location, for example, there are about 20 environmental, health and safety teams that take charge of various corresponding issues. “Our approach is to give a big place for local initiatives and ideas generated from the committees [and] the employees themselves,” says Boulé.

When it comes to who makes up the committee, look for people who are genuinely interested in seeing a workplace health and wellness program get off the ground. “Usually it starts with people who want to see an activity, and they want to get involved to make sure their activity is in place,” says Rocco Meraglia, HSE director, global mining and metallurgy at engineering firm SNC-Lavalin. Over a three-month period, Meraglia and his committee developed a workplace health and wellness program for the company’s BU Mining and Metallurgy office in Toronto. 

Beyond interested individuals, there are key parties who need to be part of your committee, including union worker representatives, management, HR specialists, health staff and even the company’s employee assistance provider. Other service providers can also contribute, says Culina. Local health units and healthy workplace specialists may be interested in sitting in and providing feedback.

3. Establish areas of need and interest

Whether you begin with early feedback to get a sense of the types of initiatives people want to see or seek input further down the road once you’ve got your committee in place, data collection is a vital step. It will help identify areas of employee needs and interests and determine the types of wellness initiatives your organization will provide.

There are a number of ways to go about collecting information, including department meetings, employee questionnaires and surveys as well as general information provided from employee assistance programs. At Pratt & Whitney Canada a bi-yearly employee engagement survey has helped them understand the needs of their workforce. “We integrated recently a Be Well Index into this survey,” says Boulé. “This is a way for us, as an example, to track our progress towards meeting one of our goals of employee health and wellness in the long term.”

4. Develop a wellness plan

The wellness plan should include rules, expectations and guidelines to create processes. It should also outline all the different tasks that need to be done and when.

The plan should identify realistic short- and long-term goals and objectives. These should also fit into a company’s larger strategic plans. For example at Pratt & Whitney Canada, the company has a five-year wellness plan that it annually reexamines to ensure is on track.

Outline the resources such as time, money and people power needed to deliver the different programs and initiatives. Other elements to consider include how and when the program will roll out, as well as how employee interest will be maintained.

SNC-Lavalin’s approach to program leaders has added another dimension to employee engagement. The bulk of the program’s teachers — most of them staff — volunteer their time. Along with yoga, one of their most successful initiatives has been an employee-led language program. “We have projects all over the world. We’re also a company based out of Montreal so French is really important to us,” says Meraglia.

5. Implement and spread the word

Some organizations begin with small initiatives and slowly ramp up over weeks, months and even years, while others jump right in. “We did a big splash,” says Meraglia. “We kicked it off with a fashion show — a personal protective equipment fashion show. We put it in the newsletter. There was a big run up to the day.”

There are a number of ways to promote a workplace health and wellness program, including intranet posts, bulletin boards, emails and demo days. At SNC-Lavalin, the committee worked with the IT department so now every time an employee logs onto their computer they receive updates about different events. 

6. Monitor, evaluate and update

Once you’ve got a program in place, keep improving through constant evaluation. Establish processes and timelines for monitoring, evaluating and updating. “Because every step of every process you need a little tweaking. It’s not going to be perfect right off the bat,” says Meraglia. “You want to get systems in place and make changes as you need to.”

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