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Holistic Employee Assistance Is Good for the Bottom Line

Aug 18, 2008
We spend a large part of our lives at work. We make friends, network with colleagues and plan our retirement years based on our active lives in the workplace. But for all the time we spend at work, how healthy is the work climate?

The answer to this question has become the focus for a growing number of companies that provide employee assistance programs.

Everyone has experienced a cold or flu, which was "going around the office", or had allergic reactions to cleaning fluids or strong perfumes in the workplace. Some jobs require physical endurance and may have a high risk of accidents.

Regardless of our job descriptions, we cope with deadlines, routines that can be repetitive, and environments which we can't control. The result can be a great deal of stress that can leave us vulnerable to whatever is "going around the office."

Employers are now beginning to realize the interconnection between work and mental and physical health. How we juggle our family lives with work pressures, workplace stress and our ability to achieve excellence have become a focus of human resources professionals.

The concept is not whether we are sick or well. It is the environment we work in and the impact of that environment on our lives, our attitudes at work and how we can cope with stress and job- or family-related pressures.

Employers are also beginning to connect this to productivity. Seventy-five per cent of employees would like to see holistic health as part of their working relationship and 85 per cent of those polled believe that holistic health reduces employee assistance costs.

One company that didn't need an opinion poll to introduce this idea to its employees is Husky Injection Moldings. Husky employs 1,400 people at its plant in Bolton, Ontario. It has an employee assistance team of eight health-care professionals, including both a medical and naturopathic doctor (ND).

The employee assistance program includes consultations with the ND and health educational programs such as information fairs. The program manager calls the inclusion of naturopathic treatments the "Cadillac" of the program. Representatives of Husky say naturopathic doctors are the key to prevention and employee education.

The Husky example is just one of the ways to address the myriad of workplace well-being issues. Some issues in the workplace that negatively affect our health are easy to resolve. For example, many people spend most of their workday in front of a computer screen. More often than not, the screen we look at is higher or lower than our neck and head. This can cause us to adopt an awkward posture which, over long periods, can compromise health. By simply raising or lowering the screen we can help correct our posture.

How we handle stress in the workplace is much more complex. These stresses include coping with environmental sensitivities such as dust or mold (statistics show that multiple chemical sensitivity affects about 15 per cent of the population), air quality in sealed office buildings or industrial work sites, fluorescent lighting and the effects of seasonal affective disorder, and communication with coworkers, to name just a few.

The British Columbia Naturopathic Association (BCNA) recently created a profile of the working environment and strategies to deal with it. Their employee assistance strategy is seminars for staff and management, interactive workshops, and educational materials. The BCNA also offers seminars that include fitness testing, basic health check-ups, blood typing and other areas of health.

The Association conducted stress management workshops for staff at Canada Trust for the first time. This involved an interactive seminar with a ND who addressed the mind/body connection of stress, nutritional tips on helping our bodies naturally cope with stress, as well as simple exercises and activities that reduce stress.
Canada Trust has also held natural health fairs and various workshops for its employees. Human Resources Manager Olivia McIvor notes that Canada Trust's goal is to promote health and well-being in general.

Is a holistic attitude towards health too "new age" for some employee assistance plans? Sure--some people can't see the connection between stress at home and anxiety in the office. Some people have never taken the time to stop, focus and address what they do, how they do it. They don't look for ways and means to integrate mind, body and spirit in the workplace and in their private lives.

But high profile companies, such as Royal Bank, KPMG, Aetna and others are taking the lead and offering their employees an opportunity to discover well being through a variety of complementary modalities.

Yet even if employers offer this type of employee assistance for their staff, is there any staff benefit? Absolutely. Canada Trust has seen a 17 per cent decline in stress among those enrolled in its 18-month-old program. Telus, another company making similar programs available to its staff, has shown a 28-per-cent lower absentee rate among employees. As McIvor notes, providing access to alternative practices can help staff strike a better mental, physical and emotional balance.

Companies such as Telus, the Royal Bank and Husky are achieving that balance, while at the same time seeing the "bottom line" improve. Employee assistance that monitors health improvements and cuts costs for business is crucial to this new emphasis on holistic health. Make sure your employee assistance program achieves a healthy balance, while at the same time giving employers a measure of success.
About the Author
Exan Wellness, Inc. is a provider of corporate wellness programs that maximize the efficiency of internet tools with personal health coaching and worksite programs. http://www.exanwellness.com
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