Discussions about workers’ well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic have opened the door to broader discussions about workplace health and benefits, one brokerage executive has noticed.
If employers want their staff healthy and working productively, they need to make sure staff are aware of the tools available to them through health benefits and workplace wellness programs — and encouraging staff to use them, Mary-Lou MacDonald told Canadian Underwriter recently.
MacDonald is the Ottawa-based national practice leader of health and performance at Hub International.
COVID-19 has brought some good to the workplace, MacDonald observed. For example, as vaccination becomes a topic of discussion, this is an opportunity for companies to have proper and stronger messaging around their employees’ full wellness picture.
Workplace wellness programs aren’t being used to their fullest capabilities, she said. What COVID-19 and its subsequent vaccination discussion has done is bring such programs closer to the forefront.
Unfortunately, however, conversations around immunization and wellness aren’t happening in the workplace, MacDonald observed. Employers can ensure staff health and productivity by encouraging them to get all the vaccinations they need.
“And they’re not,” she added. “There are lots of reasons for that. They don’t really think about that. Or it hasn’t been brought up to them by the benefits consultant. Or they don’t have a lot of people asking for it. But it’s a really important piece. So I hope that with the attention that the COVID vaccine is getting…I hope that we definitely see a ripple effect with all the other immunizations in the prevention conversation.”
While the flu vaccine may be the best-known, other vaccines are equally important for people to get. MacDonald cited the example of the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine, which she said is important for people, particularly women, to get by the mid-20s. That’s because health problems start to show “when they’re in their 30s and 40s, which is prime earning years for them in the workplace.”
Older cohorts are also at risk of conditions for which vaccines could help. “And I’m a baby boomer,” MacDonald said, “so the shingles vaccine is super-important for me to be getting right now. Yet, we don’t talk about these things.”
So a discussion about the COVID-19 vaccine in the workplace is “a fantastic opportunity” for leaders to put together a workplace wellness strategy that goes beyond just putting together a lunch ‘n’ learn information session, or buying gym memberships for employees, she said.
“Getting [the COVID] vaccine and all the immunizations and making those available would be an absolutely important first step [towards greater workplace wellness],” MacDonald said. “Look at the benefits plan that you have in place. Does it cover the cost for those things?
“And then you start promoting [the broader wellness program], by saying: ‘Look, now that we’re talking about the COVID vaccine, I want to make you aware that there are other vaccines that we cover the costs for.’ It’s a really significant piece of health promotion and keeping well, because I’ll tell you, most people don’t think about it.”
Since non-COVID vaccines are generally not top of mind in the workplace, programs designed to help employees often don’t get the support they need at the leadership level.
“Most of what we hear about workplace wellness is just fluff,” McDonald said. “They just don’t understand what workplace wellness is. Most have employee assistance programs. I hear all the time from the benefits consultants and plan sponsors that they want to change providers because they only have 3% utilization. And I the first thing I’d say is, ‘Well, what are you doing to promote the program to actually work?’”
Leaders have to take ownership of workplace wellness by stepping up and saying that it’s something they care about and is important to the company, MacDonald said. “And there’s no better time than right now to say, ‘Look, we really care about you. We care about your well-being. We care about the well-being of your family. Everybody right now is suffering in some way. We want to demonstrate — not just in talking — that we’re here for you. and we care for you.’”
This goes beyond immunizations, she said. There’s still a stigma around mental health, for example. Employees may feel uneasy about accessing such services if they don’t feel like their leaders really and truly back it.
“Leaders really need to step into this,” MacDonald said. “They need to demonstrate their commitment to a healthy workplace, full stop. So when you think about what ‘commitment’ means for a leader, it means they walk the talk. It means they demonstrate commitment through their action [and through] their allocation of resources.”
She advised all leaders to take advantage of the attention the COVID-19 vaccine is getting and jump on the opportunity to have broader conversations around the importance of immunizations to overall health in the workplace.
“If we haven’t gotten the message by now, I don’t know what else will get this across to employers how intricately connected the well-being of employees is to the success of your organization,” MacDonald said. “When employees suffer, physically and mentally, the organization suffers.”
In the final part of this series tomorrow, find out what the pitfalls are of forcing employees to get vaccinated before they return to the office? Part One explored messaging strategy; Part Two looked at the role of leadership.