Workplace Wellness

A healthy workplace means more than just warding off colds and the flu. It is more holistic and takes into consideration the physical, spiritual, environmental, intellectual, emotional, occupational and mental health of employees. Wellness promotion doesn’t just benefit the employee. An organization filled with healthy and fulfilled employees is a productive workplace that retains its employees. More and more organizations are creating health and welfare committees that are responsible for recognizing health and safety concerns and identifying solutions.

In this Section :

HR Management Standard 4.1
The organization is committed to providing a safe work environment. 

HR Management Standard 4.2
The organization is committed to supporting employee work/life balance. 

Work-life balance

According to the Government of Canada, “Work-life balance is a self-defined, self-determined state of well being that a person can reach, or can set as a goal, that allows them to manage effectively multiple responsibilities at work, at home, and in their community; it supports physical, emotional, family, and community health, and does so without grief, stress or negative impact.”

Studies demonstrate that investing in work-life balance initiatives:
  • Reduces absenteeism
  • Increases productivity
  • Improves morale and working relationships
  • Decreases stress
  • Attracts new employees
  • Helps retain current employees

That makes sense. In today’s hectic pace of life, employees are drawn to – and stay with – organizations that help them find balance and personal satisfaction. While people may be drawn by a passion for the mission, they will burn out or be turned off if their work-life balance is off kilter for too long.

How to implement work-life balance initiatives

Note: Organizations that have unionized employees will need to ensure that any work-life balance initiatives for that include these employees are developed and implemented in accordance with the terms of the collective agreement.

In practical terms, setting up work-life balance initiatives involves the following considerations:

Lots of consultation

Work-life balance initiatives need to be based on your employees’ needs, so find out what initiatives would enhance their sense of work-life balance. In smaller organizations, this could be a deliberate one-on-one discussion while in larger organizations this could involve a formal survey.

Buy-in and change management support

Consulting with your staff also provides the chance to talk through any concerns and resistance (see "Dispelling myths") to understand potential resistance and how you can respond. In order for any work-life balance initiatives to be successful, they must not only support employees but also must fit with the needs of the organization. Educate your staff, senior management and the board of directors about the rationale for work-life balance initiatives and how they will benefit employees and the organization. Address concerns and talk openly about challenges and how you will deal with them. Success requires commitment from all staff and the board of directors so this step cannot be underestimated. Depending on your organization's culture, change may be easier (or more difficult) to handle.

Develop a plan
Think through and talk through the logistics of your proposed work-life balance initiatives. For instance:
  • How will you handle office coverage?
  • How will you monitor hours, productivity or deadlines?

Set yourself up for success and avoid an overly ambitious plan. Start slowly and modestly.

Policies and procedures

To support your work-life balance initiatives it is imperative to have clearly written policies and procedures so that they are consistently administered and followed. 

Trial period

Set a trial period to see how work-life balance initiatives will work for your organization and how employees handle alternative arrangements. Make sure your trial covers a representative time period so that your work-life balance initiatives are truly realistic. Another benefit to a trial period is that it often helps people accept change because it is not (at least initially) a permanent change.


At the end of the trial period, ask for recommendations and adjust your initiatives to make them work better for everyone. This is another opportunity to deal with challenges or resistance.


As part of your staff evaluation process, promote your organization’s work-life balance initiatives so that all staff members are aware of the options.

Ongoing evaluation

Staff needs and organizational needs will change. Set a review period for evaluating your initiatives.

Good Practice: 

According to Duxbury and Higgins, to reduce work-life conflict and improve overall quality of life, employers need to focus their efforts on four sets of initiatives:
  • Increase the number of supportive managers within the organization
  • Increase employees’ sense of control
  • Focus on creating a more supportive work environment
Dispelling myths

As with many new policies and procedures, there are myths or assumptions about what the family-friendly workplace really means. Some of the commonly held myths and the corresponding reality checks are set out below.

MYTH: Family-friendly policies are soft HR issues, mainly for women.

Policies that increase employee health and well-being, foster employee commitment and support families, and positively impact everyone (employees; men and women, customers and clients, families and communities). In some organizations, it is women who have pushed for family-friendly policies since they are usually the primary caregivers, responsible for child care, elder care and health care, as well as primarily responsible for household management (shopping, meals, laundry, cleaning, and so on) and are either major contributors to family income or the primary family breadwinner. Men and women at all levels, in all stages of their career development and all stages of their life cycle are seeking flexibility to achieve a better work-life balance.

MYTH: The organization will lose control.

Some organizations may have concerns about giving up control over their workforce by implementing supportive policies and practices, however they actually gain more control over outputs and results by giving control of time management to employees. By providing more control to their employees, organizations can help establish a better working relationship. These employees, now more satisfied with their work-life balance, are more inclined to show loyalty to their manager and company. As a result, these managers will likely see a lower turnover rate.

MYTH: Flexibility is unfair and inequitable.

Some organizations think there needs to be a “one size fits all” solution to flexibility. The reality is that everyone has different needs and so the solutions will be very personal. Different people need different forms of flexibility at different points in their lives (e.g., when they have a baby or when they want to continue their education). Other people are content to work a more traditional workweek and prefer the stability and predictability of a standard work schedule. Solutions to employee needs for flexibility should be custom fit.

MYTH: Work-life balance is only for non-managerial positions.

This was the case when flexible work options were first introduced in the 1990s. However, as more women have moved into senior positions and more men are juggling their careers with fatherhood, this has changed. Many organizations offer their work-life balance policies to employees at all levels.

MYTH: Participation in family-friendly policies is a career-limiting move.

Research studies have shown that for most people, working a flexible work arrangement does not limit their careers, although it may slow down the career path, or reduce some options. For example, an employee working reduced hours might not be willing or interested in taking a position or promotion that requires extended travel. Employees need to assess the pros, cons and career impact when deciding whether a flexible work arrangement is for them.

If however, the employees assess the career impact using unsupported assumptions (e.g., those who use flexible work arrangements are less committed to the company or unable to take on increased responsibility), you may need to take measures to dispel these perceptions. This is also a reason it is recommended to conduct follow-up assessments of your programs and policies. You could, for example, assess over time the impact on promotions of those who use work-life options such as flexible work arrangements versus those in traditional work situations.

MYTH: It’s hard to measure the impact on the bottom line.

Many organizations now have access to solid statistics about how family-friendly policies positively impact the bottom-line. Through employee attitude surveys, focus groups and pilot tests, it’s known that employees with lower work-family conflict have less stress and anxiety about “doing it all” and are better able to focus on their jobs and on those to whom they provide service.

Wellness program options

There are many ways that you can support work-life balance in your workplace – even with a limited budget. Start by finding out from your employees what wellness program options would support their work-life balance. Then back up your wellness program with policies, encourage employees to make use of your workplace wellness options and affirm that tapping into these options will not negatively affect their employment with you

Below is information on the following wellness program options:
  • Dependent care
  • Flexible benefits
  • Leaves of absence and vacation
  • Education and training opportunities
  • Encouraging fitness and healthy living
  • Religious observances
  • EAPs
  • Supportive directors
  • Other management approaches
Dependent care

Almost 20% of all paid employees in the nonprofit sector are women with at least one child under 12 years of age at home (compared to 14.2% in the for-profit sector). The 2001 National Work-Life Conflict study determined that women are more likely to feel stressed by the combined demands of work and family responsibilities.

However, it's not just about child care. Many mid-life employees are part of the “sandwich generation”, which means they take care of their children and their parents. Demographic projections suggest we have yet to feel the full effects of elder care problems as the percent of the workforce involved in elder care is expected to increase from one in five to one in four in the next decade (Statistics Canada, 2000a).

Dependent care initiatives can include:
  • On-site dependent care
  • Having an arrangement with a community child care or elder care centre to provide emergency care
  • Seasonal child care programs (such as March break or Christmas)
  • Financial assistance towards dependent care
  • Referral information
  • Allowing employees to take personal days instead of vacation days to deal with appointments or unexpected dependent care issues

Will flexibility cost more? There may be some short-term costs related to becoming a more flexible employer, for example, to set up the technology for an employee to work at home. On the other hand, some costs can be reduced. For example, less office space may be needed. Happier staff members will stay longer at your organization, and by retaining experienced staff you will reduce the cost of recruitment and training. Usually, the benefits will outweigh the costs.

Flexible benefits

Flexible benefit plans allow employees to build a benefit program that meets their needs and budget. Employees can opt in or out, fully or partially by choosing from a menu of benefit options that make sense for their current situation. However, “cafeteria” style benefits tend to be more costly. Instead, you may want to target benefits to the highest employer/employee priorities. Talk to your benefits provider to create a benefits plan that works for you and your employees.

Leaves of absence and vacation

Employment standards state what your legal obligations are with regards to leaves of absence (e.g., maternity and parental) and vacation allotments. As an employer, you must follow these standards.

In addition, you can support work-life balance by providing:
  • A limited number of annual paid leave days for personal reasons
  • Community service/day of volunteering leave
  • Education leave
  • Bereavement leave
  • Self-funded leaves or sabbaticals
  • Top-up programs for maternity/parental leave
  • Continued benefits coverage during a leave of absence
Education and training opportunities

Consider offering on-site seminars and workshops on topics such as stress, healthy living and  communication styles. Start by polling your employees for suggested topics that they would like to learn more about. Encouraging employees (and underwriting the cost) to tap into external educational and training opportunities is another option.

Encouraging fitness and healthy living
In addition to offering workshops, you can put a commitment to healthy living into action by:
  • Offering fitness facilities, fitness membership assistance or having a fitness instructor come to your workplace
  • Hosting on-site flu immunization or blood donor clinics
  • Encouraging employees to walk, cycle or run during lunch hours
  • Enforcing a smoke-free work environment
  • Offering smoking cessation programs or incentives
  • Offering secure bicycle parking
  • Serving healthy alternatives when catering meetings or workshops
  • Ensuring good workplace ergonomics
  • Displaying tent cards in lunch rooms with healthy lifestyle tips or the Canada Food Guide
Religious observances
For people who follow religious practices, these practices and observances are important aspects of their work-life balance. Therefore they needs to be factored into work-life balance initiatives, including (but not limited to):
  • Alternative days off for holy days (for example, trading the Good Friday holiday for one that is religiously significant to the employee)
  • Not scheduling meetings or conferences during holy periods
  • Providing a quiet room for prayer

There is a distinction between accommodating religious observance (for example, Yom Kippur) versus accommodating a culturally significant observance (for example, Chinese New Year). Employers are not required to accommodate culturally significant events; however, it may be important to accommodate these requests as part of a work-life balance initiative.


The Employee Assistance Professionals Association defines an employee assistance program (EAP) as:

A worksite-based program designed to assist in the identification and resolution of productivity problems associated with employees impaired by personal concerns, including, but not limited to, health, marital, family, financial, alcohol, drug, legal, emotional, stress, or other personal concerns which may adversely affect employee job performance.

EAP services are usually provided by an external company that specializes in this area and there is a cost (usually based on utilization). Most offer employees and their family members access to a 24-hour toll-free information line and then assist the caller in finding the resources they need.

Supportive managers

According to Duxbury and Higgins, supportive managers are a key factor for achieving work-life balance. Not all managers are comfortable with non-traditional work arrangements so educate senior management about the importance of workplace wellness initiatives and the options and policies within your organization. Also, encourage senior management to be role models by focusing on their own work-life balance and tapping into workplace wellness initiatives.

Other approaches
The following approaches can significantly improve work/life balance for employees:
  • Eliminate unnecessary meetings or reports
  • Communicate expectations clearly to your staff
  • Encourage information sharing amongst staff and between directors, supervisors and employees
  • Allow staff to control their own priorities as much as possible
  • Promote employee participation in decision-making
  • Reduce unnecessary work-related travel
  • In larger organizations, identify “champions” at all levels that will promote work/life balance initiatives

Stress management

One-quarter of Canadians consider their work to be a significant source of stress (Source: Canadian Health Network). Perhaps you include yourself in that number. Stress causes physical, psychosocial and behavioural signs and symptoms but the risk is not just to personal well-being. In the workplace, stress can translate into performance issues, job dissatisfaction, absenteeism, staff turnover, compromised working relationships, lack of motivation and creativity. Therefore, stress management is key to workplace wellness.

Causes of stress in the workplace

In the workplace, stress can be the result of any number of situations.

Some examples include:

Categories of Job Stressors


Factors unique to the job

Workload (overload and underload)

Pace/variety/meaningfulness of work

Autonomy (e.g., the ability to make your own decisions about your own job or specific tasks)

Shift work/hours of work

Physical environment (e.g., noise, air quality)

Isolation in the workplace (emotional or working alone)

Role in the organization

Role conflict (conflicting job demands, multiple supervisors/managers)

Role ambiguity (e.g., lack of clarity about responsibilities, expectations)

Level of responsibility

Career development


Job security (fear of redundancy either from the state of the economy, or a lack of tasks or work to do)

Career development opportunities

Overall job satisfaction

Relationships at work (interpersonal)  




Threat of violence, harassment, bullying and other threats to personal safety

Organizational structure/climate

Participation (or non-participation) in decision-making

Management style

Communication patterns

(Adapted from: Murphy, L. R., “Occupational Stress Management: Current Status and Future Direction”, in Trends in Organizational Behavior, 1995, Vol. 2, p. 1-14)

How organizations can reduce workplace stress
There are a number of strategies to help minimize stress in the workplace, including (but not limited to):
  • Provide a safe and comfortable physical working environment (e.g. noise, air quality, hazards, quality of lighting, ergonomics).
  • Provide tasks that are reasonably demanding but not over-demanding.
  • Give employees a variety of tasks to do.
  • Let employees make their own decisions when possible.
  • Provide opportunities for people to enhance their skills.
  • Encourage social support in the workplace.
  • Implement a meaningful employee recognition program.
  • During recruitment, give the applicant as much information about the position as possible so that there is the best chance for a good fit with the person and the task.
  • Clearly define employees’ roles and responsibilities.
  • Ensure workloads are reasonable.
  • Provide flexible work arrangements.
  • Provide opportunities for leaves of absence.
  • Implement a workplace wellness program.
  • Communicate organizational changes to staff and allow time for employees to adjust.
  • Ensure after work activities are not mandatory.
  • Provide intentional social opportunities in the workplace.
  • Conduct thorough orientation and training so staff feel confident and set up for success.

Occupational health and safety (OHS) legislation

Occupational health and safety legislation regulates the standards of workplace safety with the aim of preventing workplace accidents and injury, and outlines consequences to breaches in those standards. Several provinces, including Québec, Saskatchewan and Ontario, also include violence in the workplace under OHS legislation. OHS legislation details the responsibilities of employers, supervisors and employees. Generally, this legislation requires that the employer do everything it can reasonably do to protect the health and safety of employees. This includes, but is not limited to: providing appropriate training for handling potentially dangerous equipment and/or material, informing employees of potential dangers in the workplace, and setting up safe work practices. Employees have the right to refuse work that is unsafe.

Occupational Health and Safety Legislation – Links to Provincial and Territorial Websites

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety

The OHS Answers section addresses common questions, including information about legislation. It is one of the best sources of information about occupational health and safety.

Child Care Workplaces that Do Not Work

Staff turnover does not always result from low salaries. Lack of a positive work environment makes a difference! Staff may be working long hours without sufficient breaks, lack sufficient space, and may be experiencing harassment. Harassment includes bullying, abuse of power and sexual harassment. Harassment may come from a variety of individuals, including colleagues, parents, and supervisors.

In extreme situations, when employees are no longer able to effectively work together (e.g.,  poisoned or toxic work environment), and/or if a formal harassment complaint has been made, it may be appropriate to bring in a neutral third party. This individual will conduct an investigation, report findings and recommend next steps.

Executive directors need to take proactive measures to ensure a healthy workplace. Measures may include clarity around roles and responsibilities and employee surveys, as well as noticing and following up on changes in employee behaviour.