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Stephen Liptrap is president and chief executive officer of Morneau Shepell.

How many of us now use wearable technology to do things such as track our steps, or apps that help us count calories? There is no doubt technology is playing a growing role in the wellness industry to improve the lives of people.

At the same time, a darker concern has entered the conversation: people becoming so addicted to technology that they put their well-being and mental health at risk. And that’s not to mention the stress, anxiety and depression often caused by the posts, pictures and taunting of schoolmates, peers and colleagues for all to see.

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But while caution is warranted, we’re not going back to rotary dial phones, fax machines or carrier pigeons. Digital life – and work – is with us to stay, and it’s up to us to curb its worst excesses.

But the opportunity I see is this: digital culture can enable what is known as digital wellness – using that culture to enable change that promises to make our lives better and at the same time reduce health care costs.

According to the Global Wellness Institute, in North America, well-being-related productivity loss is causing a lot of pain for employers, costing over $550-billion annually due to absenteeism and presenteeism (where the productivity of workers is affected by illness.) In contrast, a Gallup poll identified that a healthy employee is more productive, loyal and committed – missing 41 per cent less work and being 81 per cent less likely to seek out a new employer. Companies with highly-engaged workforces outperform their peers by 147 per cent in earnings per share.

Employees are looking for support that guides all aspects of their well-being. Employee assistance programs and medical benefits have done a fantastic job at reducing leave and getting people back to work. However, wellness programs have traditionally focused only on physical health, and target the converted and intrinsically-motivated individuals.

For an organization to reap all the gains associated with a healthy workforce, it must address physical, mental, emotional and financial health in an integrated fashion. Why? According to insurer AXA:

  • 71 per cent of employees with physical health problems experience mental health difficulties;
  • 40 per cent of employees with physical health issues experience financial problems;
  • 66 per cent of employees with financial problems see their mental health affected; and
  • 50 per cent of employees experience financial concerns affecting their physical health.

It’s a vicious cycle – and employers can help end it.

Digital technology offers employers an unprecedented opportunity to integrate new and existing health and wellness programs – creating a seamless employee-centred approach. An integrated wellness approach has the potential to reduce employee medical care costs by 25 per cent to 50 per cent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

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We can’t wait for our health care system to respond, considering its limited ability to innovate, long wait times and scarce resources. Instead, we owe it to society to strive for holistic well-being in our workplaces and as a duty of care for employees.

One way we can use digital culture to help is to engage the healing power of community. Strong workplace communities make employees happier and healthier, therefore more productive.

According to Harvard Medical School, wellness is contagious. Colleagues have a significant impact on each other’s health. If one employee sees another colleague embrace a healthier lifestyle – lose weight or quit smoking – they themselves are often influenced.

Digital communities amplify this behaviour. Aside from being fun, participating in challenges or campaigns creates a sense of accountability. The peer-to-peer dynamic encourages engagement and participation, helping to keep employees engaged.

Social networking allows employees to inspire, showcase achievements and humanize the workplace. It connects people across branches, offices and regions – pulling together teams in a way teleconferences and e-mail cannot.

Recognition matters. According to Forbes, 66 per cent of employees feel undervalued. OfficeVibe found that 65 per cent feel they don’t receive enough praise. Gallup reported that 69 per cent prefer praise and recognition over money.

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Despite clear evidence of a problem, there is still a lack of recognition in the modern workplace. Humans care about the opinions of others. Not to mention the fact that encouragement is a powerful and gratifying motivator.

When employers create a culture of recognition, praise and celebration, they create an environment that encourages success among employees and managers. To succeed, build recognition into all levels of your organization. Use digital platforms and social media to regularly recognize success and nudge employees towards healthier choices. Set company-wide goals. Align incentive programs with positive social behaviour.

It is a common refrain at conferences to hear about the importance of work-life balance, and how technology should be used without it being at the expense of the employees using it. Employees are humans, not assets. They’re not cogs, but people with families, hobbies, interests and personal goals. To unleash their ingenuity and productivity, we must take their well-being seriously. Technology can help, but only if we use it well.

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