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Small businesses account for about 4.6 million employees – 31% of working Canadians. These employers stand to benefit enormously from having healthy employees.Dmitriy Shironosov/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Small businesses account for about 4.6 million employees – 31% of working Canadians. These employers stand to benefit enormously from having healthy employees, since absenteeism, reduced productivity and other health-related costs cannot be absorbed as readily in small businesses as in large ones.

Yet many small business owners assume that investing in a wellness program is too expensive for them. It needn't be so, says Noel MacKay, group practice leader of the Williamson Group, a benefits consulting and financial services firm in Brantford, Ont. with 65 employees. "It all depends on how you define wellness. You can start small."

That's what founder Paul Williamson did when he started the company 35 years ago with one employee, adding many more wellness features as the number of employees grew.

The company now pays the entry fee for employees and their family members who wish to run in the annual 10K or 5K Brantford Classic race. For the past four years, it organized an in-house program in which eight employees go for a run together at the end of the day.

The firm also sponsored a walking campaign, in which its employees competed against those of other companies; participants (equipped with pedometers to measure the distance) walked over 47 days.

Six years ago, the Williamson Group promoted nutrition by introducing Fibre Fridays, paying for a tray of fruits and vegetables to be served to employees once a week.

Last year, the company ran its second Health Risk Assessment (HRA), which included measuring employees' cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar and body mass index (BMI). Those at risk were measured again 60 days later. Initially, 32 per cent of employees had at-risk cholesterol levels; the proportion dropped to 11 per cent at the follow-up.

For smokers wishing to kick the habit, the employee benefit plan covers the nicotine patch, and the employee assistance program offers counselling. The number of smokers fell from eight to two due to last year's HRA.

Mr. Mackay credits the wellness program with employee satisfaction and low turnover. "We have people who've been with us for 25 years, and almost 40 per cent of the staff has been here 10 years or more. Wellness programming is something we intuitively know helps us."

Wellness promoters are unanimous that, in order to succeed, a company program needs buy-in from the top. That means the owner has to do more than simply approve and pay for the program. "It's best if employees can see the head of the company actively participating in the program," says Colette Baser, founder and wellness director of Boomerang Workplace Wellness in Calgary.

Getting buy-in from employees is, of course, also vital. "You have to tailor the program to meet not only the company's objectives but also the employees' needs," Ms. Baser says.

She also suggests that a cross-section of employees form a "committee of wellness champions." Besides promoting the program in-house, members could check where the nearest fitness club and yoga classes are located, and try to negotiate a group discount for employees who wish to join.

If the employer decides to bring in outside experts, the least costly approach is to access community resources. "The public health unit can provide free advice," says Kim Snider, president of Health Systems Group in Mississauga, Ont. "A nutritionist from a local hospital may be available."

If a firm with 50 or fewer employees wishes to buy a wellness package, however, it should be willing to invest $100 to $250 per employee, Ms. Snider says.

The employer must ensure that the fitness trainer, nutritionist and other team members are qualified. "Check on their experience, certifications and even references," advises Roxayn Daniels, owner of Transformations Fitness in Vancouver. "You should be able to tell from the initial meeting whether the team has the passion necessary to inspire and motivate your employees," she adds.

Communication is a key to the success of any wellness program. The company should raise employee awareness in advance of the program's launch, through posters, company-wide e-mails, and even the creation of a website.

Beyond building awareness, the company should attempt to introduce a program where each employee sets their own personal goals. "It should be possible, in a small workplace, to give personalized attention to each employee," says Ms. Daniels.

That could be as simple as a 10-minute "body composition test" that shows each employee how much of the body is fat and how much is muscle, says Ms. Daniels. "When they see their numbers and learn they're at risk, it can be a real eye-opener."

Wellness activities should be fun and build camaraderie. Incentives, in the form of a draw among participants or a prizes for the top achievers, can motivate employees.

"The more the activities are scheduled on company time – rather than outside work hours – the higher the participation rate will be," advises Ms. Daniels.

But along with being motivational, a wellness program should also be educational. If a company decides to replace the chocolate bars in its vending machine with healthier snacks, it should explain why. "The wrong snacks can create a sharp spike in blood sugar," contributing to or worsening diabetes, says Ms. Baser. "You want your employees to understand that you're making things that aren't good for them less convenient."

Fitness competitions or "challenges" that last longer than eight weeks have significant drop-offs in participation, warns Ms. Snider. "The intention is to get the employees into the habit of exercising or eating healthy. But the challenges can be integrated into a wellness point-system for the year."

The final piece of the wellness puzzle is feedback and evaluation. The company should track the number of people taking part, monitor the impact on absenteeism and disability claims, and then, if necessary, revise the program.

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