An increasing number of companies are embracing formal employee wellness programs, which are often coordinated with employee health care benefits. These programs are appealing to potential employees; however, for many companies the cost and logistics of these formal programs can be daunting.
Below are some ideas of how employers can promote employee wellness outside of a formal program. To break it down, we will consider strategies that fall under these categories: healthy physical activity, nutrition/healthy diet, adequate rest, and community involvement.
Healthy Physical Activity
For many companies in the maritime industry, the work employees do is physically demanding, so it is important to consider what specific physical activity you want to promote.
Having an on-site gym fully stocked with free weights might sound appealing to your employee base, but heavy lifting might not be the best break-time activity for a fitter or welder who spends most of their day lifting objects in awkward positions. Instead, consider promoting a stretch-and-flex program before each shift and after breaks. These programs, when properly implemented, can help prepare workers for the physical demands of their jobs, and can help make employees more alert when they may be groggy or distracted.
For companies that have predominantly office workers, a small gym with cardio equipment and/or resistance training equipment can be beneficial. Workers who are mostly sedentary can benefit from a readily available way to exercise; just be sure that clear instruction on the use of the equipment is available.
Periodic challenges, such as those using activity trackers or weight loss challenges, can be an effective way to bring team building and comradery into the equation. A word of caution on these challenges: if they are not designed well, they can get out of hand very quickly. Be sure to set them up in a way that encourages team building and cooperation. Consider team tracking rather than individual tracking, and if an entry fee is collected, the pool can be divided between a charity of the winners’ choice and the winning team members.
In the interest of transparency, I will say that this is a difficult section for me to address because it is what I struggle with the most. Since I travel for work, I am often not able to prepare my own meals ahead of time or know in advance where or when I will be eating, so far too often the answer ends up being a cheeseburger (because they are delicious).
With that disclaimer, the simplest and most effective way an employer can support their employees’ healthy eating habits is to make healthy options as available as possible.
This may simply mean increasing refrigerator space in a breakroom so that employees can meal-prep and bring healthy options from home. There are now companies that specialize in stocking healthy vending machines with pre-made meals, snacks, or fruits/vegetables. In many cities, there are companies who offer pre-made meals to local customers, sometimes with delivery options. The important thing is to see what is available in your area and reach out to the vendors to see if they would be willing to work out an agreement to bring healthy options to your workplace. This does not mean that you as the employer need to be offering free lunch; the intention is for the healthier options to be just as available, if not more so, to your employees so that they can just as easily choose the fresh salad as the frozen burrito. The choice is still theirs.
A more involved approach is to bring in a nutritionist to give a quarterly or semi-annual talk to employees about nutrition and wellness during a safety meeting. If you have a relationship with a local occupational health clinic or hospital, they may have a resource that could run this type of class. A local college would be another potential resource. Some companies go so far as to coordinate an after-hours nutrition/cooking class that employees can attend. If set up well, they make surprisingly good “date night” activities and can be a fun team-building activity as well.
Awareness of worker fatigue is on the rise, but few companies take active steps to monitor and limit worker hours beyond what is required by law. Not only does working extended shifts increase the probability of a workplace injury, it also increases the occurrence of motor vehicle crashes on the way home from work.
Companies are working to complete jobs on schedule, and workers are often willing to take on overtime for the obvious financial benefits. Workers go home and have many other demands on their time and attention that may limit the amount of true rest that they get during their off time. Additionally, there is often a great deal of pride among workers in the ability to keep working until the job is done. These factors contribute to a situation where no one is pumping the breaks or speaking up when they do need to get some rest.
There are several strategies a company can take to fight this tendency. Supervisors should be trained to identify signs of fatigue, and a non-punitive way of handling identified cases of fatigue should be developed. The same policy should be applied for self-reported cases of fatigue. Companies may limit the consecutive number of days that employees work overtime, limit the overall number of hours worked in a given week, or find some other way to enforce a consistent limitation on hours worked. The key to the success of any of these approaches is developing rapport with employees so they can have candid conversations about how work demands are affecting them.
Despite the many studies about the psychological benefits of volunteer work, that is not why most people volunteer. However, your company can facilitate and encourage your employees to be involved in your community specifically because you know that it will bring a great deal of happiness and wellness to your employees. For example, AEU has a long history of partnering with Big Brothers Big Sisters in Mobile, AL, and this relationship has been beneficial to “Bigs” and “Littles” alike.
Some companies may want to establish a long-term relationship with a local organization. Others may want to pick a different cause annually. The key element is to look for something in your community that will require actual time and involvement from the volunteers. You may be inspired to raise money for a disaster on the other side of the world (and there is nothing wrong with that!) but it will not have the same effect on your employees as actually getting them out in their community helping those around them. This may mean you support the efforts financially by either providing time off to do the work or supplying materials to complete the work. You are only limited by your imagination and the willingness of your employees to give back.
If you are interested in pursuing some form of an employee wellness initiative, consider reaching out to your AEU Loss Control Manager to discuss the specifics of your situation. Keep in mind that since all these recommendations require some level of time and financial commitment, you will need management support for any initiative to be a success. Once that support is established, bring some ideas before your employee safety committee or another representative group to narrow down the options to what employees would most likely participate in.