Depression, anxiety and other mental health issues now make up about half of all disability claims. So to Robyn Benson, president of Canada’s largest public service union, the Public Service Alliance of Canada’s agreement with the Treasury Board of Canada to set up a task force to examine all policies, practices and working conditions that could be contributing to the surge in mental health claims “is a breakthrough.”
We all want a healthy workplace. Investing in wellness is good for management, and good for employees. But how to go about it?
“Hundreds of academic studies trumpet the positive returns on investing in employee wellness,” says Ivey Business School Professor Michael Rouse, “yet only about seven percent of firms have comprehensive workplace wellness programs in place.” And those firms achieved a 14 to 38 percent reduction in absenteeism.
Some organizations are already on the path.
The public sector
Setting an example: “The Ontario Ministry of Labour’s mandate is to set, communicate and enforce occupational health and safety standards for Ontario workplaces,” says Jody Young, the Western Region Director, Operations Division. “We are serious about health and safety – it’s what we do. We wanted to set the example for our stakeholders, and to attract and retain the best talent.”
So in 2003 the Ministry adopted the Excellence Canada Healthy Workplace standards, subsequently achieving national recognition through the Canada Awards for Excellence.
Using a framework: “It provided a framework, a road map to align our initiatives in workplace culture, physical environment and promotion of health and lifestyles,” Young reports. “This provided us with some rigour around what we were already doing and systematic direction to where we should be going next.”
Deputy Minister Sophie Dennis adds: “It provides a way to track and analyze our efforts, programs and progress and to compare ourselves with other large organizations, public and private sector. It gives validation and helps get buy-in from all levels.”
Results: On the government-wide Ontario Public Service Employee Engagement Survey, the Ministry now scores higher than average, with continuous improvement in the areas of safe and healthy workplace, work-life balance, workplace morale, recognition, and co-worker relationships. It’s become part of their culture. And sick days used has declined.
Young observes: “Staff now routinely ask whether a decision has been put through the healthy workplace filter. There’s been an impact on management as well: we have more open communication and our relationship with the union is more collaborative.”
At an individual level, one impact is a staffer who witnessed first-hand the Boston Marathon bombing and, after receiving post-traumatic stress counselling, is now playing a leadership role in the Peer Support Program.
Organization: Deputy Minister Dennis says the process started with frontline staff in the Operations Division. Then a working group including reps from each region and each layer in the hierarchy did a workplace wellness gap analysis and determined that the Excellence Canada program best aligned with their goals. Next, management leads were established (a director and a steering committee). That group set the foundation for the current Healthy Workplace Committee. They developed a five-year plan and embarked on a process of continuous improvement.
Inclusiveness is a key. As Dennis noticed on a poster in a wellness centre, “when ‘I’ is replaced by ‘we,’ even ‘illness’ becomes ‘wellness’.”
Lessons learned: Young shared some lessons that might be transferable to other public sector organizations. “Engaging and empowering champions at all levels and in all areas of your organization will assist in successful implementation. This cannot be driven from the top down. You need to come at it from all angles. Get buy-in from senior leadership that they will engage staff at all levels. Ask the staff how to make the workplace safer and healthier. They will become your champions to ensure implementation. And make sure leaders walk the talk.”
The private sector
ArcelorMittalDofasco’s motto is: Our product is steel, our strength is people. “Our strategy has two perspectives,” says Katrina McFadden, vice-president of HR and Corporate Administration, “performance strategy and organizational health strategy. The result is a holistic approach to the business and our people. Excellence Canada’s framework offered the opportunity to validate and improve our approach.”
“Our commitment to health in the workplace has always been exceptional. The Excellence Canada framework has complimented our work and provides even greater accountability and purpose, consistent with our commitment to continuous improvement. It gave us objective insights into our strengths as well as into opportunities for improvement.”
Implementation strategy: Upon adopting the framework, Dofasco had lengthy collaboration with stakeholders and targeted engagement with all levels in the company. An integrated health team managed the process. Each employee was encouraged to participate in wellness programs for both mind and body.
Dofasco’s infrastructure includes on-site fitness centres, a 1,000 acre recreation centre, nutrition education, weight management, diabetes prevention, post cardiac rehab, and counselling for employees and families. Rebecca Kwiatkowski, manager of Integrated Health, observes: “Historically, people fear what they don’t understand and refer to people needing emotional support or mental assistance as weak, when actually it is a very common issue affecting many Canadians – one in three during their lifetime.”
So Dofasco’s assistance goes beyond the workplace, to deal with financial management, parenting a blended family, supporting elderly relatives, bullying, stress management, depression, anxiety and the general need to “switch off” and achieve work/life balance.
Leadership receives monthly reports and annual scorecards.
Results: In a workforce of 5,000, lost time injuries were reduced from 250 a year to just six. Disability claim days are down. And mental health related short-term disability cases are down year over year.
Prevention is forward-looking – teams scan for unsafe behaviours and conditions, then develop tactics to eliminate the behaviours and conditions, so injuries are prevented. It is not only compliance with standards that is important, Laurie Haggstrom reports in an in-house newsletter, it is also applying the principle of spotting a lapse of judgment or a potential hazard, and speaking up about it to stop unsafe work.
The impact goes beyond “the gates.” McFadden notes that “we are helping not only employees, but also family members and friends. We create healthier employees who become advocates for health and wellness.”
Lessons learned: “We have long known that when you invest in people, you are investing in the health of your business, increasing efficiency and productivity,” McFadden concludes. “One key is having a continuous improvement mindset, for our production process and employee programs. Another key is to measure success and understand the value of programs. Finally, benchmarking against others helps us understand what is possible and how it might be achieved. The Excellence Canada process gave our team an objective insight into our strengths as well as opportunities for improvement.”
For employers serious about creating a healthy workplace, more is needed than motivation and words. These examples from the public and private sectors show measurable, meaningful improvement can be achieved. Adopting a framework, developing a road map, and creating the supporting management processes greatly facilitates the cultural transformation, turning motivation into action.