Making it Easy


Staples Canada Inc. has a good recipe for its healthy workplace activities. Start small, take advantage of opportunities, and aim to run the program on a cost-neutral basis. Beginning very modestly in 2002, its home office fitness facility and store-level services have helped reshape the company physically, socially, and culturally. Success at reaching its Associates in the stores, warehouses and call centres is essential in achieving its broader organizational goals. Staples will continue to invest in its fitness “brand” to demonstrate its concern for the health and well-being of its Associates, and make it easy for them to achieve better health.


Executive sponsorship of workplace health strategy and programming is seen as key to its success. Normally, a human resources executive gets the nod. But at Staples Canada Inc., the first program leader was the vice president of information systems, and the incumbent volunteer is a lawyer.

Staples is Canada’s largest supplier of office supplies, equipment, furniture, and services to small business and home office customers. David Burt is the company’s General Counsel and Secretary, and is the executive sponsor of the company’s healthy workplace activities. About half of the ten-member leadership team use the home office gym, and others meet their personal fitness commitments outside the workplace. This sets a great example.

Staples started its efforts at its home office in Richmond Hill, Ontario, which has about 400 Associates. The star of the program is their fitness facility, opened three years ago. More than just a gym, it is now the “social hub” of the company. Other head office programs include on-site massage therapy, ball hockey and basketball leagues, and educational seminars. Every year, Staples hosts the Wacky Olympics for Associates, and the company supports participation in the Special Olympics torch parade. Programs are aimed at creating fun and sometimes, bragging rights such as their “Winning at Losing” weight loss challenge.

Staples’ investment in its healthy workplace strategy links well to its other corporate priorities. In this demographically challenged age, they need to attract and retain the very best employees. The program helps boost morale, reduce stress, and change attitudes about how and when work is done. Managing disability and absence is also a corporate priority. David says: “We need to present ourselves as a brand that demonstrates care about the whole life of our Associates.”

The Staples wellness program is run on a shoe-string, in keeping with the company’s reputation as a low-cost provider, and in tune with the current economic climate. “Our business plan says our operating costs for the fitness facility should be wholly funded by member fees”, says David.
“We hit that goal.”   
Getting the Show on the Road
The vast majority of Staples employees work in their 300 stores, warehouses and call centres coast to coast. For these people, Staples introduced Get Fit at Home® in October 2006, which includes information on physical activity, health promotion, and nutrition. It’s a model useful for other organizations with widely dispersed employee groups. Volunteer wellness representatives at about one-quarter of its stores promote this to Associates.

Three issues have emerged: first, store Associates don’t have a work email address, so direct communication is not easy. Second, there is higher turnover in the field than in home office.  And third, for success, each store’s General Manager needs to take the lead and this is not a ‘natural’ role for many GMs. The District Manager is also a key to success – each is responsible for 12 to 16 stores, and so can be very influential.

Despite growing pains, this innovative program will continue. “The very fact that we have it and are willing to support it, is important,” David says. “It is symbolic of the importance we place on reaching out to stores.”
Looking Forward
Like many other companies who start workplace health promotion programs, Staples admits it is not very good at tracking program results. There has been no formal evaluation yet. Fitness-related activities are not yet well aligned with broader organizational metrics, such as engagement. Ultimately, the company would like to encourage more coordination between its vendors for fitness, cafeteria, Employee Assistance Plan, employee benefits, occupational health, Workers’ Compensation, and human resources management services.

However, the company believes in the program, and is obviously willing to experiment and learn. Their determination supports the notion that improving health in the workplace is a process that pays dividends over the long run. Associates get the message; one respondent to the company’s 2008 fitness and wellness survey commented:

“Overall I think the Fitness Centre helps us attract and retain people. We have a Coop Student coming back to work for Marketing…full time at HO and one of the reasons is the people; the other is the new building and the gym.”

Getting Started
Small employers are a staple of Staples’ success. David Burt’s advice for creating healthier workplaces is, in fact, to start small, using whatever a company has in terms of space and home-grown talent. He says their first “event” was held in a cramped conference room using one of their own staff who was a certified Tai Chi instructor. He strongly encourages leaders to emphasize the social aspect because these programs are a wonderful way for people to find common interest and connect. Third, tell new employees about what’s offered – if they didn’t ask about it themselves during the hiring process. Finally, there needs to be active promotion to spark excitement and keep momentum. Note that none of these tips involves building a gym or setting aside a big budget.

Getting Results
Tri Fit Inc. manages and staffs the Staples’ fitness centre and other programs. It compiled the following data for 2008:

·         45 stores registered at least 33% of their associates in the
Get Fit at Home
® program.

·         In June, an online pedometer challenge attracted 40 teams from Home Office, stores and call centres (300-400 people).

·         In November, the online Eating Well Challenge launched with
715 participants.

·         “Active” participation (visiting the home office fitness centre >3 times per month) averaged 54% among all members.

·         On average, 70 members visited the fitness centre each day.

·         Average of 220 people per month attended weekly fitness classes.

·         208 fitness assessments were completed, and 73 individual programs were created.

  • The program costs $120,000 to reach nearly 14,000 employees. Since about 40% of total program costs (facilities and services) are offset by gym membership fees paid by home office employees, the net annual cost to the company is just over $5 per employee.

Making Change


The key to success at workplace health promotion is to change behaviour. Over twenty years ago, James Prochaska proposed his Transtheoretical Model, which described five stages of change. Employers and health professionals both have a role.

1.     Precontemplation – No action intended for the foreseeable future, i.e., the next six months. At this point, advice from health professionals can be very effective. Employers can encourage regular check-ups, and provide general wellness information.

2.     Contemplation – Action intended in the next six months. People need education, and employer incentives, such as conditional monetary bonuses, may be also be effective.

3.     Preparation – Action intended soon, i.e., in the next month. Health professionals can help with treatment planning.  Employers can ensure access to essential prescription and Over-The-Counter medications, such as nicotine replacement therapy for smokers.

4.     Action – Specific, overt, recent modifications in lifestyle. Health professionals can monitor their patients, and employers can lower financial barriers by providing reimbursement for counselling and other support.

5.     Maintenance – People are working to prevent relapse. This stage starts about six months after a change and lasts four to five years.
Continued support is required by family, health professionals, and the employer.

– Adapted from conversation with David Wilkoff, MD,
Homewood Health Centre



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