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Health and wellness in the workplace

Creating a healthier workplace is becoming a central focus for companies, and food is very much at the heart of it

May 18, 2016
By Julie Fitz-Gerald

More and more corporations are seeing the physical, social and mental benefits of a healthy workforce, and taking responsibility for helping to make it happen. Photo: Fotolia

Despite the challenges of providing nutritious and tasty options that the health and wellness trend has caused in the vending industry, leading Canadian and American workplaces are realizing the many physical and financial benefits that come with a healthier workforce, prompting a shift in corporate policies. Healthy workplaces are no longer an afterthought, but rather the focus.

For vending and food service, the opportunity is ripe for innovative, healthier offerings that meet or exceed the needs of these comprehensive policies. Think smoothie stations, salad bars and protein-packed snacks. These types of healthy choices in the workplace are in demand by employees and becoming commonplace as receptive companies look to take better care of their staff.

In a Harvard Business Review  (HBR) article by Cortney Rowan and Karuna Harishanker entitled “What Great Corporate Wellness Programs Do,” health and wellness initiatives are touted as the answer to a national obesity crisis in the United States, providing hope for battling the epidemic in the future. “Companies are a microcosm of society and an important and unleveraged setting for health improvement and risk reduction,” Dr. Ron Goetzel, an expert in health and productivity management, says in the article.

In conjunction with the U.S. Department of Defense, HBR researched over 20 award-winning workplace wellness systems in place at companies including Johnson & Johnson, L.L. Bean and Safeway. “We saw these leading organizations owning the responsibility to change how people interact with health care, in a way that government or health care organizations have been unable to do,” Rowan and Harishanker write.


The study found employees’ lives were enhanced in organizations with a more proactive stance towards health, while future costs for the companies were reduced; average annual health care cost increases were only one to two per cent among the 20 companies in the study, compared to the seven per cent national average.

With greater research showing the positive impact of health and wellness strategies across all areas of business, these programs are poised to become more prevalent over the coming years. A Fortune Magazine article entitled “5 hallmarks of successful corporate wellness programs” by Holly Lebowitz Rossi notes the outcomes of corporate wellness programs include smoking cessation, weight loss and obesity prevention, better management of diabetes, blood pressure and cholesterol, and personal health and safety practices like sleep, hygiene, and stress management. In addition, “Business outcomes include lower absenteeism, higher job satisfaction and work productivity, higher employee retention, and lower health care costs. Given the variety in types of wellness programs, it’s difficult to pinpoint precise financial benefits, but one 2012 review of 62 studies, published in the American Journal of Health Promotion, found 25 per cent lower sick leave, health plan, workers’ compensation, and disability insurance costs among companies that had wellness programs,” Lebowitz Rossi writes.

In the article, she notes successful wellness programs that foster daily healthy behaviours among employees often have healthy vending machine and cafeteria offerings at the top of their list.

At Manulife Financial, a focus on healthy food choices is currently being implemented to further support its already robust wellness programming.

“With respect to food services, Manulife is currently in the process of transitioning to a healthier catering menu that better reflects ‘Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide,’ with a particular focus placed on vegetables and fruit, whole grains, milk and milk alternatives, and lean meats and meat alternatives,” says Ruy Carreiro, managing director of corporate real estate at Manulife.

All of the company’s Canadian offices have employee dining rooms that serve two meals a day and cater meetings and events. The company has a mandate to reduce sugar and refined carbohydrates in the food served to its employees, as well as provide healthy options for pre-packaged meals and snack foods, including gluten-free and whole wheat options. The dining rooms feature “chop and top” stations providing custom salads, as well as salad bars, smoothie bars, grill and deli counters, sauté stations and fresh vegetables served daily with entrees. At Manulife’s global and Canadian headquarters in Toronto and Waterloo, the dining rooms also feature an “urban cultivator,” where the company’s freshly-grown herbs are kept for use in meal preparations.

Maria Fraga, assistant vice-president of global benefits and wellness at Manulife, says the company has made it a priority to offer and promote healthier, less processed choices throughout all of its operations, including café dining and catering services.

“Aramark, our partner food service provider, employs all elements of our comprehensive health and wellness program, Healthy for Life at Manulife, including the following elements: providing and labelling healthier choices through ongoing menu innovation using trending ingredients; promoting healthier choices through targeted marketing strategies; educating Manulife employees and guests around health and wellness in order to provide context around healthier choices; and engaging the community in these important topics through special events and activities designed to positively disrupt daily habits and re-connect consumers to what’s in their food and where it’s coming from.”

To facilitate healthy meal and snack choices, Manulife ensures all standard menu items contain labels with calorie and nutrient information, as well as a menu icon system that uses logos to identify healthier choices and gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan options. By implementing merchandising and product placement strategies that see wiser choices, like the salad bar and smoothie bar, placed in prime locations where customers can easily find them, Manulife is striving to ensure active interest in the offerings.

“We also use tactics such as healthy messaging clings throughout the café to provide suggestions for ways to make better choices, or colour-coded serving utensils at self-serve salad bars so consumers can understand which ingredients are the healthiest for them to build their meal or snack around,” Fraga says.

The care and thought that have gone into Manulife’s wellness program are vast, proving just how serious some companies are when it comes to corporate health strategies. With a tremendous amount of resources allocated to these programs, ensuring buy-in from employees is crucial. To engage staff and get them excited about the wellness opportunities that exist, incentives are an important piece to the puzzle. Fraga says Manulife encourages employee participation through Aramark’s mobile app technology. Employees are rewarded with a points-based system every time they engage in health and wellness information on the app, provide feedback, or purchase weekly healthier choice features and combos on the dining room menu. The points earned go towards monthly prize contests.

“It’s really about bringing our employees programs that are relevant and that can help them be at their best at work and in their personal lives, not only physically, but mentally and socially,” Fraga says.

The numerous benefits realized by employers through successful corporate wellness programs seem to signify that this trend is here to stay. For the food service industry, innovative ideas that put healthy meal and snack choices at the forefront mean everyone can come away a winner. o

Julie Fitz-Gerald is a freelance writer based in Uxbridge, Ont.