More employers are providing wellness programmes, but it’s key to focus on what staff want, writes Áilín Quinlan.
When Edel Murphy’s company began offering a bespoke workplace wellness programme in 2018, she learned to meditate, developed strategies for managing her stress levels, and began to exercise regularly.
The 39-year-old mother of three from Baldoyle, who works as an executive assistant to Anne Heraty, chief executive of recruitment company CPL, found the programme hugely helpful.
“I did daily meditations during my commute to and from work,” she says. “It was the first time I had tried meditation and I found it very good; it helps me to switch off.
“There were also breathing exercises, which were very good to help if you’ve had a stressful day.”
The programme emphasised a number of workplace team-based physical fitness challenges in which Murphy also participated.
“I’m more active as a result of the wellness programme,” she says, adding she often disembarks from her train home a stop earlier than usual so that she can walk the rest of the way.
“I’m more inclined now to go for a walk in the evening or do a run, which I didn’t do before.”
The wellness programme’s onsite forums on issues such as goal setting, motivation, and stress management were immensely helpful for Murphy, who says she has most recently signed up for a wellness forum on sleep.
Although CPL has had different wellness initiatives over the years, the challenge of creating a dedicated programme to suit CPL’s 800-plus employees across Ireland and Britain took time, research, and planning, says its human resources manager, Niamh O’Connor.
“We’ve always had wellness initiatives in the company. We did the lunchtime talks and also the lunchtime mile where we encouraged employees to walk a mile at lunchtime, and we offered health screenings and other initiatives, but it was a bit disjointed, with lots of people doing different things. We didn’t have a unified approach,” she says.
However, in October 2018, CPL decided to introduce a tailored, company-wide programme which could be rolled out to employees.
Research was carried out before even deciding on a corporate wellness provider — and the first thing the chosen wellness provider did, says O’Connor, was to talk with employees.
Next, a comprehensive workplace wellness programme was designed around the three pillars — movement, nourish, inspire.
“The providers carried out a study of employees and got feedback about their needs and desires and based the programme around the results of that,” says O’Connor.
“The providers visited all our offices so that employees were quite energised in terms of what they experienced.”
The subsequent wellness programme offered everything from access to health coaches, fitness instructors, and dietitians to seminars and talks based around issues raised in the employee survey such as resilience, stress management, and nutrition.
Employees also participated in ‘move and meditate’ challenges, while managers attended practical information sessions on how to deal with mental health issues such as anxiety, stress, and depression in the workplace.
One of the best things about the programme, says O’Connor, was that it has generated a conversation and awareness around wellbeing — and it also received a strong response with nearly two-thirds of employees participating.
For the 2020 programme there will be an emphasis on addressing the needs of different demographics within CPL in terms of the various expectations and outlooks within the workforce.
“We currently have employees ranging across four generations — 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50-plus,” she says.
Many companies are well-intentioned about offering wellness initiatives, but a lack of understanding about what is actually needed in individual workplaces and poor communication with employees can result in programmes which are not effective, says Davina Ramkissoon a specialist in health psychology, and a director with Zevo Health, a corporate wellness provider.
“From what we’ve seen, the number one reason that workplace wellbeing programmes fail is due to relevance,” she says, adding that diversity, age, and work-related stressors are among the issues which need to be taken into account when designing a programme.
Ramkissoon points to a thought-provoking study carried out last autumn by Zevo Health, whose clients include Google, the Law Society of Ireland, CPL, and Circle K.
The research surveyed 700 Irish employees across a variety of sectors including education, retail, hospitality, health, construction, IT, finance, and the public sector, to understand attitudes to a variety of workplace issues including work/life balance.
It found that 78% of employees did not have a wellness programme that incorporated fitness, mental health, and nutrition.
The research showed, for example, that 29% of employees aged over 40 didn’t feel their company’s wellness programme was relevant to them.
At the same time, around 85% of respondents agreed that both employers and employees need to play a role in employee health and wellness.
Ideally, says Ramkissoon, this means employers should work with employees to “co-design” a workplace wellness programme.
“More thought needs to go into programmes — we conduct focus group interviews and get an insight into the stresses and the needs of a workplace and what the organisational factors are that we need to take into consideration when integrating the programme,” says Ramkissoon.
If this work is not done, she says, the programme will not have an impact because it does not match what the employees feel they need.
“There’s no point in an employer just purchasing a wellness programme — research needs to be carried out into the needs of the employees, otherwise it won’t be relevant. The demographics within the workplace are something that needs to be thought about.”
For example, a firm’s HR department might implement a lunchtime exercise class to reduce stress levels.
However, if this company is under-staffed or under-resourced, the exercise class may not help because the company is not tackling the root cause of the stress.
“If the team sees there’s too much work to be done and not enough people to do it, they won’t attend that class,” says Ramkissoon.
A significant issue for companies seeking to implement an effective workplace wellness programme is the need to accommodate different demographics in the programme, says Dr Colman Noctor, a psychotherapist with St Patrick’s Mental Health Services, who has a special interest in how work and technology impacts on mental health.
He emphasises that different generations have different attitudes and outlooks, saying the diverse needs and experiences of different age groups in the workplace must be taken into account.
“I feel that companies are not always getting it right in terms of dealing with communication issues between different age groups,” he says.
“They should also address issues relating to where different generations are working together, and trying to pull them together, rather than just attempting to plug a problem with an intervention.
“It’s about getting people together to see if there is a middle ground for creating a culture of integration and understanding of each other’s difference.
“Workplace wellness programmes should look at the different needs of different generations by acknowledging the different attitudes, perspectives, and strengths between the different age groups, and try to address them, so it is far more complex than trying simply to introduce a wellness programme with yoga,” says Dr Noctor.
“There has to be buy-in, so it must be appropriate to the different demographics within a company.”
Fun and fitness one step at a time
Flora McKnight was intrigued by a workplace wellness programme introduced by her employer last year, which among other things, offered fun, friendly team-based competitions and resulted in a significant improvement in her physical fitness.
McKnight a Circle K terminal supervisor at Dublin Port, recalls how the company arranged for a team exercise challenge which was based around the number of steps or other exercise employees racked up over a certain period of time.
She greatly enjoyed the friendly rivalry it entailed.
“We were competing against different teams throughout the company like retail, finance or IT. It was a great fun because you were part of the team and there was friendly competition,” says the 46-year-old who lives in Dun Laoghaire.
“We got points based on the amount of steps we did. You got points per step and the amount of time you spent exercising, for example in the gym.
“It’s all tracked by a special app. I increased the amount of exercise I did massively, because the points system really encouraged you to walk more and to get up and be more active.”
She also found that she felt encouraged to walk rather than drive in terms of carrying out her on-site duties.
“You were having a laugh with your colleagues and egging each other on to do more steps.”
The wellness programme, she says, offered employees something new and different to focus on and talk about.
“People talk about the challenge and the steps and you’re getting to learn more about your colleagues and they’re becoming friendly, more so than they would have been previously.
“It’s a bit of fun and a bit of a laugh and something positive and it’s healthy. It’s something I will keep doing and I couldn’t recommend it more highly,” she says.
Circle K retail human resources manager Áine Griallais, is pleased with the result of the wellness programme which she says, attracted strong employee interest and will continue into July 2020.
Along with the emphasis on physical exercise and team challenges,she says, the programme offered information and advice on everything from nutrition (a practical healthy cookery demonstration) to talks and workshops on issues such as anxiety management and body positivity.
“All you can do with a health and wellness programme is to make things available to people, and encourage them to take it on.”
There’s a fine line, she says, between encouraging employees to do something and allowing an element of coercion creep in.
“We feel coercion doesn’t work. People need to want to do this and our job is to make it as enticing as possible.”