Understanding the types of Ontario workplaces that offer both wellness and OHS programs

In brief

  • Most Ontario workplaces offer few wellness initiatives.
  • Ontario workplaces that have both strong health promotion programs (i.e. offer a variety of wellness initiatives) and high-performing occupational health and safety programs tend to be large, with people-oriented cultures.

Published: June 2019

Why was this study done?

Research shows that occupational health and safety (OHS) and health promotion programs provide greater benefits to workers’ overall health when they are integrated within an organization’s health and safety strategy. Momentum has been building in the United States for such an approach, an example of which is the Total Worker Health® program. Little is known about the extent to which workplaces in Canada offer health promotion and wellness initiatives in addition to their OHS programs. This study set out to identify the types of workplaces in one Canadian province—Ontario—that offer both, in order to better understand the potential workplace settings in which the integration of wellness and OHS activities in the future may be easier to accomplish.

How was the study done?

This study drew on data previously gathered as part of the Ontario Leading Indicators Project (OLIP), a research project conducted by the Institute for Work & Health in partnership with four health and safety associations from 2011 to 2014. About 1,700 workplaces from 10 Ontario sectors were recruited and representatives most knowledgeable of their health and safety activities were asked to complete a 20-minute online survey covering a broad range of workplace health and safety policies and procedures. Participants were also asked about a range of wellness offerings, including policies (e.g. flexible hours), programs (e.g. nutrition counselling) and facilities (e.g. change rooms).

The researchers analyzed the health and safety performances of the workplaces surveyed, as indicated by their scores on the IWH-Organizational Performance Metric (IWH-OPM), as well as the availability in these workplaces of 25 possible wellness initiatives that are linked to health promotion and disease prevention.

What did the researchers find?

The most common wellness initiative was flexible hours, offered at 40 per cent of the workplaces surveyed. The next most common initiatives were employee assistance programs, physical activity or fitness programs, stress reduction programs, working-from-home policies and on-site shower facilities. Each of these was offered by about 13 to 15 per cent of workplaces.

About 83 per cent of the workplaces offered no or just one wellness initiative. Another 13 per cent offered an average of four wellness initiatives. The remaining four per cent offered an average of 10 wellness initiatives. The organizations among this four per cent were also strong OHS performers (scoring highly on the IWH-OPM).

These organizations with both strong wellness and OHS programs had several factors in common. They were large. They tended to be in the electrical and utilities or municipal sector. They had a strong people-oriented culture—i.e. having a high level of trust, open communication and employee involvement in decision-making.

What are the implications of the study?

The scarcity of wellness programs across the workplaces included in this Ontario study stands in contrast to the situation in the United States, where at least three-quarters of workplaces offer some kind of wellness program. This difference may be due to the lower incentive for Canadian employers to invest in wellness activities, as most medical services are covered by Canada’s publicly-funded health care system.

Findings from this study suggest that larger workplaces with people-oriented cultures and in the electrical and utilities and municipal sectors may have more health protection and wellness resources that can be streamlined in an integrated approach. Additional research is needed to learn how employers can integrate the two so that they use resources efficiently and mutually support the safety and well-being of employees.    

What are some strengths and weaknesses of the study?

This study benefits from the large number of workplaces that took part in OLIP, with findings that can be generalized to the Ontario sectors included in the study. However, several sectors such as finance, information technology, professional services and entertainment were not included in the study. Also, respondents to the OLIP survey were selected for their knowledge of OHS activities in the workplace, not their knowledge of wellness activities. As a result, it’s possible that they did not report wellness activities as accurately as they reported OHS activities.