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October is Healthy Workplace Month in Canada, and the focus is on healthy and happy employees. The goal of the month is to increase the number of healthy workplaces in Canada by raising awareness of a comprehensive approach to workplace health in Canada that involves health and lifestyle practices; workplace culture and a supportive environment; as well as physical environment and occupational health and safety. This year, the weekly themes are "being well", "feeling well", "eating well", and "connecting well".

Living well at work means something different for every employee, and as technology changes the way we work, employers are looking at innovative new ways to provide their employees with a healthy, sustainable work environment. According to the Healthy Workplace Month website, employees perform at their best when they have emotional, intellectual, and social well-being. Healthy workplace practices to promote employee well-being include:

  • Effective occupational health and safety policies that encompass mental health
  • Support for healthy habits like regular physical activity, healthy eating, hand hygiene, stress management, and developing social ties at work
  • Flexible work options, sick leave, vacation, time for appointments and volunteering in the community, reasonable work hours and regularly scheduled breaks
  • Meaningful role autonomy, recognition, individualized incentives, and training opportunities
  • Healthy workplace design that supports a variety of work preferences, integrates technology, encourages employees interaction, and provides natural lighting

Employers who choose to implement health workplace practices can benefit over the short and long-term from increased engagement and productivity, as well as decreased rates of absenteeism, turnover and lower disability costs. These practices can also help employers develop a reputation as an employer of choice, which can assist in attracting and retaining valuable talent. In order to have a lasting impact however, they must be firmly integrated into workplace culture.

Take for example, the recent flexible vacation announcement made by pioneering Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson. Employees of Virgin's United Kingdoms and United States parent companies will be eligible for unlimited vacation days, provided that they manage their attendance so that they stay up to date with their work responsibilities. This type of flexible work arrangement – which allows for increased work-life integration for employees – is based on trust, and has been made possible through advances in technology that make working remotely possible, reflecting how work is really being done in the social age. Branson provided very public leadership for this initiative, making it clear that Virgin’s focus should be on how much people get done rather than how much time they spend on it. Interestingly, Netflix was apparently the first company to implement a similar vacation policy in 2002. Take a good idea and make it better, right?

When implementing innovative healthy workplace practices, it is important for employers to consider how the practices will function in relation to their particular business and human resources model, and adapt the practices accordingly. There may be unforeseen legal implications for employers, including those related to meeting employment standards minimums and managing performance, which should be carefully considered. An experienced employment lawyer can help you identify potential implications and develop effective policies in advance of launching your innovative new program.

This content is not intended to provide legal advice or opinion as neither can be given without reference to specific events and situations. © 2021 Nelligan O’Brien Payne LLP.

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