Higher Learning at the University of Calgary

Blount Canada, Guelph, ON, now employs almost 900 people manufacturing high quality chainsaw equipment for export worldwide.
Over the last 3 years, it has significantly reduced costs for STD, casual absence, and WSIB. External providers and its own managers together focused on overhauling its disability management policy and practices. Supervisors became the focal point for handling employee absence.
The company’s long history in quality improvement reinforced the need for measuring and active management of change. Blount credits a steady series of small improvements in its work environment and culture for this latest success.
A few months ago, Joan McDonald was one of the people accepting an award on behalf of her employer, the University of Calgary. Like so much in life, this recognition was not an overnight success, but a steady progression towards excellence that began over ten years ago.
Joan is a Human Resources Consultant at the U of C. In 1994, her department identified workplace health as a key part of its people strategy. At that time, a review of benefits information helped identify health-related issues. The decision was then made to broaden the focus to include wellness as a proactive strategy. In 1998, targeted wellness programs were implemented, including lunch-and-learns, workshops, and partnering with pharmaceutical companies on health and disease management initiatives. In 2001, behavioural change theory was incorporated into programming to "recruit beyond the converted". Then in 2004, the HR department developed the Healthy U of C Plan, outlining the University’s commitment to the good health of staff and students.
The Plan articulates the following beliefs about a healthy workplace:
  • The University and staff members share responsibility for creating a healthy culture.
  • Leaders have an integral role in promoting a healthy, safe and supportive workplace.
  • Optimal health and wellness fosters increased productivity and effectiveness in both work and personal responsibilities.
While the University is a large employer, its principles, process, and perseverance are the foundation of successful organizations of almost any size. Many programs wrestle with funding and the challenge of keeping programs fresh, and U of C is no exception. As Joan puts it, "We have had to endure the ebb and flow of financing." Developing shared responsibility has been key to creating and sustaining the wellness programs.
To deliver its programs, the University has invested in internal resources as well as an external provider. Most notably, the HR department has developed partnerships with other business units on campus, specifically the Fitness and Lifestyle program in the Faculty of Kinesiology. Staff have access to an Employee Assistance Program, occupational health services, ergonomics consultations, lunch and learns, a workshop series promoting mental health, and relapse-prevention initiatives for those needing support or therapy – all at no cost to the employee. The University has also created innovative policies, such as making fees for the recreation centre eligible for reimbursement through flexible spending accounts. [Ed. Note: Such fees are not tax-favoured.] EAP and disability management is integrated when necessary to address work-related issues. While some programming occurs after work, managers are encouraged to grant time off for staff to attend programs offered during work hours.
Reinforcing an integrated approach, the U of C has deliberately aligned workplace health strategies with complementary aspects of its human resources strategy. One of the cardinal rules of a sustainable approach, Joan believes this has contributed to the success and acceptance of the programs by staff, managers, department heads, deans and unions.
Effective use of EAP and disability management programs has established a 300% return on investment through reduced sick days or averted absences. LTD rates are also lower than average.
All this has helped the University receive recognition for excellence in workplace health. Its most recent award, from the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, was presented in the presence of Alberta’s Minister of Health and Wellness and many of Calgary’s business leaders.
Tapping her experience over the past ten years, Joan has identified key factors that will help all organizations incorporate health and wellness into their business strategy:
  1. In addition to a sound operational plan, the program must be effectively marketed to employees, supervisors and management.
  2. Share ownership and costs with employees.
  3. Encourage your suppliers to innovate. For example, the University’s EAP provider proposed group counselling for employees wrestling with work-life balance.
  4. Start. Start anywhere, but start. Build from something that already exists, such as health and safety, or disability management, and involve staff in planning.
  5. Take an integrated view to program evaluation, looking for the weight of evidence. For example, improved attendance and short-term disability claims management may mean higher administration costs, but improve the bottom line overall through reduced STD and LTD claim costs.
In creating a healthier workplace, Joan knows the University of Calgary is living its commitment to higher education. Doing its homework, a sustained focus, continuous learning, and taking a series of smaller steps has created results that really make the grade.


The Bottom Line Commentary
What a great example the University of Calgary has shared, not only the power of a workplace health program but also its successful application in a large organization that is not our usual homogeneous, structured business or manufacturing company.
Let’s just reflect on how a wellness strategy can contribute to the Bottom Line:
  • Reduced costs or claim incidence.
  • The strengthening of a caring, values driven organizational culture.
  • Energised and engaged employees who feel good about themselves and then about what they do and for whom they do it.
The lessons we can draw:
  • The University effectively "marketed" by employing the two basic principles: "Create the need", and then: "Fill the need"
  • The need was created through health and disease management lunch-and-learns and workshops.
  • The need was filled by effective and synergistic partnering both within the university (Faculty of Kinesiology), and with its external partners, such as pharmaceutical companies.
  • They minimized barriers: Employees could participate at no cost, flexible spending benefit accounts were used, and participation was encouraged during work hours.
  • They measured: Initially their benefits data identified preventable health-related issues. Then, by monitoring falling rates of sick leave and LTD rates, they proved the wisdom of their initiatives.
The U of C reckoned a 3:1 return. Dr. Graham Lowe (a bh Advisory Board member), in his review of published literature, suggests a return of 3 to 8 dollars for each dollar invested by American employers, who cover far more of the medical cost. A 3:1 return in Canada is great news!
The Dinos may be the university’s team name, but the U of C is far from prehistoric in their wellness approach. Indeed they are leaders in creating a healthy organization, energized professors and energized students. That is the true Bottom Line for them and indeed all of us.
George Cuthbert > CA, ACMA
Categories: Bottom Line