Home Featured Human Resources Beyond Benefits:

Beyond Benefits:

Top Employers Explain the Tools they Use to Boost Employee Health and Productivity


In 2015, the Social Market Foundation published a study exploring the link between employee health and productivity. One control group received drinks and snacks and watched 10-minute comedy videos before completing a series of tasks. These participants showed a 12 per cent increase in productivity over the control group who received nothing beforehand. While, to an extent, employers may not be able to control the way their employees live outside of work, they can definitely control the environment they experience at work. How are some top employers doing this?

“Wellness is becoming more and more important in the workplace, but especially in legal. It is a is a very demanding field with a lot of deadlines, clients, and pressure,” says Rhonda Heffernan, national director of Human Resources for Bennett Jones, which has been named one of the top employers in Alberta for the past seven years and is a winner of the Aon Platinum Award for Best Employer in Canada seventeen years in a row.

“Our firm spends a great deal of effort to be a top tier employer. We want to attract, develop, and reward the best and brightest talent in our markets. Last year, we reviewed and revamped all of our benefits and decided to invest in our wellness initiatives. We offer a wellness subsidy program to all firm members who enroll in a wellness activity. Everyone has an annual spend limit that is 100 per cent reimbursed. Since wellness looks different for everyone, we cast the net wider than a gym membership. We want to motivate our teams to participate in whatever activity contributes to their overall physical and mental health — whether that is a yoga class or a team sport or counselling.”

Bennett Jones offers in-house professional development programs like the Bennett Jones Academy and, launching this year, the Bennett Jones Leadership Academy. There is also a non-monetary program called Brilliant, which is implemented across all offices— leaders and managers are given blank cards and asked to take a moment out of their busy day to notice who has made a contribution or is celebrating a milestone and write them a hand-written note.

“This year, Bennett Jones will also be participating in the Not Myself Today workplace mental health initiative,” says Heffernan. “We have a week of activities planned that will provide our teams with better tools to deal with the causes of stress in the very fast paced world we live in.”

Developed by the Canadian Mental Health Association, Not Myself Today is a campaign dedicated to raising awareness and breaking down stigma around mental health challenges in the workplace. Another company that has participated in Not Myself Today, and ranked second among a list of 50 top national employers, is ATB Financial.

“Creating an environment and culture that values overall wellness and encourages employees to be fully present and authentic at work each day is everyone’s responsibility,” says Debbie Blakeman, chief people officer at ATB Financial.

There are several initiatives in place at ATB to ensure employees have access to the wellness resources they need. There are 180 Wellness Champions across the organization that ensure team members are well supported, and a Wellness Leadership Committee that includes 19 of ATB’s senior leaders from every part of the business. There is also a team dedicated to implementing the institution’s wellness strategy with quarterly campaigns focused on mental, physical, financial and emotional wellness.

“Some think banking is all about profits and numbers but at ATB, we know it is about the stories behind the numbers and those stories are always about people. Our team members can only deliver remarkable customer experiences if they can fully be themselves at work and are present and all in — which is why we focus on the whole person. Physical wellness is deeply connected to mental, emotional and financial wellbeing. When one of those elements of our lives is not properly attended to or nurtured, it can throw us out of balance and affect us personally and professionally.”

“At ATB, we recognize that while we are experts in reimagining banking, we don’t have all the answers when it comes to wellness. That’s why we partner with mental health experts like the Mental Health Commission of Canada. We also take time to train our leaders on how to create a psychologically safe workplace, reduce stigma and help team members get the resources they need from professionals. It takes real intention to build a work environment around team members so they can thrive and flourish.”

Just like Blakeman, Jon Gogan, provincial director of Northern and Central Alberta operations at STARS (Shock Trauma Air Rescue Service), also understands that to do their best work, everyone needs to be performing at the top of their game.

“Everyone in the organization plays a role in the life-saving work we do. We give hope to those in their most serious time of need. That is front and centre when we look at how we interact and support each other. We know how vital an engaged, positive and supportive work environment is and we all own that,” he says.

Recognized as a leader in providing critical care and transport, STARS was also selected as one of Alberta’s Top Employers this year.

“Training is critical to our success,” says Gogan. “To continue providing exceptional care, our operations team members complete ongoing extensive technical training. We also provide training across the STARS organization for all team members based on needs identified through employee surveys and observations. Recent examples include workshops about difficult conversations, engagement and motivation, while project scoping and emotional intelligence training are scheduled for later this year.”

In addition to partnering with the Respect Group to offer Respect in the Workplace training at all bases, STARS also has an organizationally-funded benefits program, which includes an employee and family assistance program, social clubs at each base to remind everyone to take a break and connect on a personal level, dedicated leadership awards, peer-to-peer recognition and the Spirit of STARS Award.

“Employers need to acknowledge that they have a responsibility to support, value, and care for their team,” says Amanda Wagner, founder and lead educator at The Complement, an Edmonton-based company that supports businesses in creating excellent team and customer experiences.

“Make resources known, start the conversation, create an open-minded culture that is willing to have tough conversations, and pay attention to your team members. If there are unusual absences or missing assignments or someone is continuously showing up late, check in on them. Provide a safe space where employees know that they can turn to you.”

“Gratitude and support go a long way to making employees feel heard and seen,” adds Catherine Hughes, director of culture at Shopify — recognized as one of Canada’s top 100 employers this year for several reasons including the $5,000 employees are given in addition to a basic health benefits plan. The money can be put towards a health or wellness spending account, a charitable giving account or retirement savings; personal coaching sessions with their on-staff coaching team; an internally-built system, called Unicorn, that enables anyone to post a message of gratitude or congratulations to other team members; and much more.

“We’re invested in the growth and success of our people and are creating an environment that balances empathy for every human, with an understanding that we’re each accountable for our own choices, actions, and career journey,” Hughes concludes.