Improve Workplace Wellness and Reduce Employee Stress With a Little Curiosity


Francesca Gino once said, “When we are curious, we view tough situations more creatively and have less defensive reactions to stress.”

Every year at our CPHR BC & Yukon HR Conference + Tradeshow in Vancouver, we see an array of new and seasoned health and wellness programs being offered to the HR and business community. While innovative programs might create breakthroughs and attract more employee participation, we wonder:

  • what does it really take to raise the bar on wellness programs?
  • What makes them thrive?
  • What makes a difference?

Today, let’s be curious, explore and identify some internal and external factors leading to sustainable, better health and wellness for the workplace as a whole, and its people.

Technology + Togetherness = Wellness

As we know, productivity tends to shift upwards when employees have increased levels of energy and stamina from reaching and sustaining their fitness goals. Moreover, with increasing technology applied to the wellness spectrum, it is easier to provide effective programs and tools with which employees can keep track of their fitness goals and progress towards them.

Yet, while technology facilitates the process of engaging such goals, it does not necessarily engage team spirit on its own. Finding ways to use technology while stimulating a collective élan optimizes its use while supporting a cultural shift towards health and fitness.

For example, in one client company I worked with, team members were encouraged to purchase a Fitbit. As they used it consistently over at least eight weeks and reached their initial goals, they were refunded for that purchase. Then, employees enjoyed challenging each other towards their next level of steps and fitness by setting up contests across teams where winners were rewarded with gift cards.

Buy-in from Leadership is Key

In conversation with Meaghan Jansen, owner and corporate wellness specialist at Employee Wellness Solutions Network, I learned that one way to boost effectiveness of a wellness program is to create momentum with a campaign including posters, a mini-health fare and various appealing tools. Jansen explains, her company is “all about prevention and proactivity,” affirming the importance of “getting the conversation going while raising awareness on risks of preventable health issues.”

Jansen said her programs often produce an ROI of three to one and generate better levels of energy and morale among employees, while reducing turnover. Not surprisingly, she observed that the programs with highest levels of engagement—including onsite health coaches—produce the bigger changes. To reach impressive results takes time though; when it comes to health and wellness, there is no “quick fix.” Instead, a strong program eventually helps instil employees with new habits and produces change in the workplace culture whereby they encourage each other to reach or sustain their goals.

This is where the concept of ROI meets VOC (value-on-caring) head on—albeit with support from more than the HR team alone. Jansen affirms that these programs “fail or succeed largely depending on the level of buy-in from managers and leaders.” Leading by example, again at all levels, is very important here; as “people” regardless of title participate and encourage others, a positive ripple effect reaches across the layers of organizational structure.

Big-value on a Small Budget

When budgets are limited, there are still numerous ways to create excellent and effective health and wellness programs. For example, the City of Vancouver has been a pioneer with their health-promoting programs programs—and health enhancement co-ordinator Kate Lekas has been the main driver of this department for over
25 years. In conversation, she proudly mentions that their Fit City program, which started on a shoestring budget, won a 2016 Gold Award from Wellness Fits, a program created by the Canadian Cancer Society and the BC Government.

Describing parts of their wellness program, Lekas explained that employees can earn points for health-supporting behaviours and activities. This includes all forms of exercise—dancing, yoga, walking, gym, etc.—and, with sustainable living in mind, also includes points that can be earned for composting or car pooling.

Lekas emphasized that part of the success of their program is that there is something for everyone and their specific strengths, needs and limitations. When points add up to certain amounts, prizes can be earned such as caps, water bottles, sport socks, all with the City logo and used with pride by employees. With the use of metrics, they also determined that the most active program participants have fewer sick days, are more productive, engaged and loyal to their employer.

Acknowledging that mental heath issues are becoming more prevalent, Lekas said chronic stress, depression and anxiety are among common issues these days. Along with emphasizing the importance of prevention and exercise to counter stress, the City’s wellness efforts also include promotion of resilience and stress management strategies and tools.

Drawing on Curiosity Supports Wellness

Consider the recent report from Morneau Shepell on HR trends and preoccupations of HR professionals. It reveals that mental health and chronic stress are among increasing concerns. Looking deeper into prevention on the intrinsic side, curiosity is currently standing out as a basic human attribute that can benefit business, culture and employees alike.

In the Sept/Oct 2018 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Francesca Gino, professor at Harvard Business School explains, in The Business Case for Curiosity, that curiosity strengthens and improves engagement and collaboration while often reducing stress. According to her research, curiosity is also linked to a greater level of agility and enthusiasm in helping the company perform and succeed.

However, Gino points to two typical barriers to embracing curiosity in business:

  • A resistance to questioning the status quo
  • And seeking to bypass exploration in favour of efficiency

Referring to high-profile companies in the Silicon Valley, Gino suggests that when the culture actually values curiosity, HR professionals are more likely to hire with that attribute in mind. In turn, when leaders model inquisitiveness and emphasize the importance of learning goals, the barriers fade out as the benefits of curiosity rise in people’s awareness.

As part of her research, Gino found curiosity encourages empathy as employees listen to each other, allowing them to better communicate and collaborate. Applying curiosity to health and wellness programs could foster innovation, new possibilities and increased participation with all benefits ensuing.

Self-compassion as Workplace Inner Resource

While interpersonal communication is a proven business imperative, the lesser known intrapersonal dimension includes self-compassion, which is currently becoming known as an antidote to stress in conflicted situations.

In her article, “Give Yourself a Break: The Power of Self-Compassion,” Serena Chen, professor at University of California, Berkeley, demonstrates that when faced with setbacks—such as being overlooked for a promotion or an interpersonal conflict—employees typically become defensive and blame others, or berate themselves. Both reactions aggravate stress, set up negative self-talk, and prevent employees from learning from what happened. Unfortunately, we tend to be our own worst critics.

Citing several formal studies, Chen concludes that those who respond to setbacks, failed attempts or conflicts with self-compassion are more likely to arrive at a realistic self-appraisal which is the foundation for self-improvement. Rather than falling into self-complacency or defeatism, this realistic view of self also fosters a growth mindset fostering the ability to summon the grit needed to enhance personal/professional skills and change physical/mental wellness-related habits.

Now, as HR professionals embrace self-compassion and curiosity, while instigating out-of-the-box health and fitness programs, you become catalysts in the drive for excellence while supporting the culture and its people to thrive in wellness and productivity.



Professional speaker, author and business coach, Isabelle St-Jean, RSW, PCC brings to her clients two decades of experience in leading, educating and providing practical solutions to major work/life challenges and transitions.

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