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Dr. Talia Varley holds a master of public health from Harvard University and MD from McMaster University. She is the physician lead for Advisory Services at Cleveland Clinic Canada, a medical centre where physicians, wellness experts and management consultants help organizations improve employee health and manage organizational risk.

In addition to comprehensive health benefits, employees today are asking for more and better “wellness” services. That’s a net benefit, for employers and employees alike.

Cleveland Clinic Canada’s work with scores of companies shows that money spent well on wellness contributes to employee satisfaction and productivity while preventing bigger outlays on serious physical- and mental-health ailments, long-term disability, and absenteeism. Additionally, properly targeted benefits help companies attract and retain employees and allow individuals dealing with chronic diseases such as diabetes to lead happier, healthier and more fulfilled lives. In fact, 87 per cent of employees consider wellness packages when choosing an employer.

Despite the many benefits, wellness is a difficult beast for corporations and HR departments to wrap their heads around. It is a multi-trillion-dollar industry that is experiencing constant change. Wellness encompasses almost everything that supports day-to-day happiness, performance and health – fitness, fertility, nutrition, sleep, mindfulness, stress reduction, relationship management, mental health and innovations such as medical devices, telemedicine and remote health care.

Organizations – squeezed because of the competition for talent and the desire to do more for employees – risk selecting inferior services, making costly mistakes and missing out on the impressive strategic business benefits that wellness offers.

Best practices

The top barriers to participation and success include lack of awareness, lack of interest and potential suspicions about employers’ motivations. Organizations can overcome these in a number of ways, including:

  • Show leadership commitment: Successful wellness programs start with a commitment from leaders and continued success depends on ongoing support at all levels.
  • Include employees in program design and execution: Strong engagement in wellness programs and activities is best achieved when employees have ownership or accountability, understand how they and the company benefit, and own a meaningful voice in ongoing implementation. Consider surveys, pulse checks and Q&As.
  • Spread the word: Clear communication leads to greater participation, for example: “this is what the program entails,” “here is how it works,” “here’s what’s in it for you,” and “here are ways to get involved.”
  • Offer smart incentives: Proper incentives drive participation while keeping employees engaged and motivated; the challenge is moving employees from participating for a reward (external incentive) to a place where the new behaviour is perceived as both satisfying and worth maintaining (internal incentive).
  • Track and report progress: Program evaluation and iteration is critical for success, so it’s important to develop an evaluation plan at the start so that data can be collected at baseline and monitored over time.

Companies that commit to wellness can see rewards quickly. For instance, we have helped companies integrate wellness into the workplace through tactics such as regular town halls with doctors and wellness experts paired with HR leaders knowledgeable about employer-offered programs and benefits. Initially, employees can be reluctant to engage and ask questions on certain taboo topics. However, as the weeks go on, they become comfortable, start asking questions and even begin sharing their own experiences.

In a country with a chronic shortage of family doctors, offering information from experts to educate and motivate employees to make healthy choices and access appropriate health services provides benefits on personal, corporate and societal levels.

The evolution continues

Over the years, employee expectations around health and wellness services have changed. Today we hear more requests about services such as fertility treatments, mental-health supports and financial well-being. We see companies demanding more from their employee assistance programs, which have historically formed the backbone of corporate health services. Today, progressive companies are creating more responsive, flexible, customized and holistic health and wellness platforms that offer more and simpler gateways to the services employees require.

To maximize impact, it’s important that organizations look at health and wellness as a continuum of care aimed at individual behaviour and collective culture change, and not merely as a selection of third-party services. A healthy organizational culture is built intentionally, creating a way of life in the workplace that integrates health and wellness in every aspect of the business, from company policies to everyday work activities.

Successfully implemented and robustly supported, wellness is a core business strategy with ROI that goes well beyond the bottom line.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.

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