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Employee wellness has been in corporate Canada’s lexicon for a long time, but the pandemic has accelerated and broadened the scope of how the health of a business and its work force is inextricably linked.

Gone are the days where a wellness program was a patchwork of separate but well-intended initiatives – perhaps some “eat healthy” posters in the lunchroom, along with on-site fitness opportunities, topped up by an employee and family assistance program in the benefits package. What’s evolved during the past 16 months is a new reality where companies that are the most pro-active in taking responsibility for the health of their employees are also proving the most resilient.

“Essential” businesses learned this on the fly, moving full speed to shift to contactless processes and curbside pickups, with some even setting up workplace vaccine clinics. As we move into what hopefully will be a sustained reopening, non-essential businesses can learn – through imitation or osmosis – how to become a more health-centric organization.

It starts by acquiring expertise. The gold standard today is the position of Corporate Medical Director (CMD), a growing trend within large corporations even before the pandemic. The role is often held by a practising physician who maintains an affiliation with their health care organization – such an affiliation is valuable because it facilitates consultation with a whole team of clinical experts to guide decisions.

They help align company strategy, policy and leadership to medical best practices, often infusing them with leading-edge knowledge. Fully versed in a company’s operations and industry, the individual in this leadership role tailors their efforts toward areas most relevant to the business. It could involve product safety, or perhaps the implementation of health technologies. But employee health is usually at the top of the agenda – from occupational safety to mental health, benefit planning and beyond. Ultimately, it’s a fluid role. Purolator fortuitously hired our first CMD before the pandemic; his priorities quickly morphed into virus-proofing operations, managing infections, interfacing with public-health officials and educating staff.

Retaining medically trained expertise isn’t realistically in the cards for most smaller or mid-sized Canadian businesses, but a long-term trend that is likely to emerge post-COVID is a rapprochement between the business and health care sectors. After all, keeping employees healthy and protecting the health of our communities are essentially two sides of the same coin. Until the pandemic, many businesses hadn’t had much reason to interact with public health. Now these networks are well in place, and the business community has often been at the forefront of reinforcing key public-health messaging within their respective work forces and the wider community.

We are also seeing opportunities emerge where clinical-based community health care organizations are contributing expertise to inform and amplify existing employee wellness programs. Cleveland Clinic Canada and Trillium Health Partners Foundation are among many notable organizations actively collaborating with businesses and their work forces.

The COVID experience certainly kick-started a new mentality on healthy workspaces. No doubt the incidence of infectious symptoms within a workplace, even the mildest, will be rarer than before. The grinder who battles through a nasty cold in the office will face wariness from management and peers alike, rather than admiration for their work ethic. Remote work opportunities when someone is slightly under the weather, along with a growing appreciation of health hygiene and personal space, should help put a serious dent into future flu seasons, such as last year, when it was all but non-existent.

On the mental health side of the equation, flexible work schedules, living wages, child care benefits and well-promoted employee and family assistance plans are all measures that contribute substantially to overall workplace health.

Communication is a critical driver of all things related to employee health. In-house or partnered medical expertise offers the most credibility – but where this isn’t feasible, it’s important to identify a workplace health champion that can amalgamate information and initiatives across departments and locations, serve as a recurring and reinforcing voice, and cut through counterproductive messaging coming from outside sources.

Employees themselves are increasingly looking to their employer for direction and assistance. Many businesses are heavily involved in helping their staff navigate through rapidly changing vaccine eligibility rules and clinic access, for example. Drawing from the lessons learned during the pandemic, it’s incumbent on business leaders to continue setting employee health as a responsibility and a priority.

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John Ferguson is the president and CEO of Purolator. He is the Leadership Lab columnist for July, 2021.

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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