Within any organization, passionate and influential leadership is needed to lower compensation costs, improve quality of life and promote a healthy and productive workplace culture. Wellness programs must be comprehensive, evidence-based, and relevant to the unique demands of each employee. They need to be accessible, inclusive and designed to inspire (not dictate) cultural change. An emphasis should be placed on the development of infrastructure to facilitate collaboration and communication between stakeholders. A seamlessly integrated approach to workplace wellness is needed to achieve success.
Central to this integrated approach is an evidence-informed framework that can be easily adopted and understood by all parties involved – every employee needs the capacity to meet the demands of their life. This model provides an excellent foundation to establish recommendations or to create resources by emphasizing the application to employees’ lives. Streamlining the continuum of care and delivering a consistent message (this is for you!) will provide every employee with the opportunity (and motivation) to reduce their risk of injury and disease, improve their health and wellness, and enhance the overall quality of their life.
The Case for Wellness
It is commonly stated that focusing on treatment instead of prevention has created a “sick care” system (not “health care”) in which much of the available funding for health and wellness is spent in reaction to people getting hurt or sick. In this model, most professionals (e.g. physicians, chiropractors, physical therapists, occupational therapists, exercise specialists) treat clients in response to developing or existing problems. Unhealthy, unsafe and stressful work environments can cost employers billions of dollars annually because funding is allocated to these short-term and reactionary initiatives.
However, recent initiatives are helping to create a “proactive” health care system by encouraging the development of wellness and prevention strategies. Placing an emphasis on workplace wellness has consistently shown a return on investment of $2 to $8, which for a large organization amounts to millions of dollars saved annually by investing in employee health. In general, a workplace should only be considered healthy if it addresses the physical environment, personal health resources and the organizational culture.
Keys for Success
- Multilevel leadership: Creating the desired culture requires authentic, passionate and influential leadership at all levels (e.g. management, union, health care team, employees).
- Comprehensive: The wellness program should be evidence-based, engaging and relevant to every employee. An emphasis must be placed on employee motivation, education, training, evaluation and collecting data.
- Accessible: All members must have access to each component of the wellness program.
- Collaboration: A unified vision is needed to create a healthy working environment. The initiative cannot be perceived as a top-down initiative with little input from the employees (employee perception is critical!).
- Communication: Wellness must begin with a message. Cultural change needs to be inspired, and therefore the personal benefit (e.g. quality of life) of the organization’s wellness program should be highlighted.
A Practical Example from the Fire Service
In 1996, the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and Fire Fighters (IAFF) launched a Wellness and Fitness Initiative (WFI) to improve the health, fitness and overall quality of life of firefighters across North America. Fire departments who implement the WFI must develop a program that is agreed upon by both labor and management, mandatory, non-punitive and confidential, and specific to firefighters’ physical and psychological needs.
Although the WFI is structured to ensure that firefighters are fit, healthy, and able to handle the unpredictable, physically demanding nature of the job, it is well know that each individual is not just a firefighter. They are are also a father, mother, brother, sister or friend who happens to have a demanding occupation. For this reason, the WFI is as much about preparing firefighters for the job as it is preparing for life, both while working and long into retirement.
As a first step, the WFI highlights the importance of inspiring change. One of the first and most important factors of the initiative is gathering information regarding the attitudes of the members and organization as a whole. The WFI exists to inspire each and every firefighter, whether they are new to the department or nearing retirement. This is arguably the most important step in developing a wellness initiative – to implement any large-scale change requires that employees be open-minded and willing to participate (i.e. buy-in is critical!).
Wellness initiatives that target health and safety at work may be viewed with less enthusiasm than ones that emphasize family, recreational activities and retirement. How the activity is presented could make all the difference in the world.
The WFI also provides evidence-based information to help shift firefighters’ perceptions of wellness, fitness and exercise. Knowing that there are simple things that every firefighter can do regardless of age, interests or experience to dramatically improve the quality of their lives today could be the spark needed to achieve success. Only after members have expressed an interest in wellness can measures to be taken to develop education and resources that change their perceptions of health, wellness and the overall workplace initiative.
Ultimately, to establish a positive and productive workplace culture may require a change in employee behaviors. Once the firefighters have embraced the notion of wellness (changed their attitudes) and learned about the potential benefits of the initiative both on and off the job (changed their perceptions), strategies can be developed to change behaviors. The WFI prioritizes member buy-in prior to implementing any intervention that will improve performance, reduce risk or enhance overall quality of life. This is largely accomplished by relying on a network of Peer Leaders (e.g. Peer Fitness Trainers) who have the knowledge and skills to provide guidance within a department.
Lastly, the WFI is built on a framework that every firefighter can use to make exercise and training matter beyond the gym environment. Having embraced an approach that focuses on members’ attitudes, perceptions of wellness and fitness, and positive behavioral change, the WFI truly can impact the quality of firefighters’ lives. Ultimately, an emphasis is placed on enhancing firefighters’ capacity with respect to the demands of their lives so that they can continue to perform any activity they need or want to do today, tomorrow and long into retirement.