Faculty, staff wellbeing at heart of Western plan

It’s a brisk January day, but that hasn’t stopped a number of Western staff members from heading to the Support Services Building to experience the physical and mental benefits of yoga, one of the free lunchtime activity classes offered through Living Well @ Western.

Susan Rhuman is among those looking to be more active and reduce stress levels.

“I have a desk job and have to work on my posture and strengthening my core,” said Rhuman, a Stewardship Officer in Alumni Relations and Development. “If you are slouching at your desk, you’re going to have pain. But if you have the right posture, you are going to avoid that cycle of pain.

“Releasing stress physically translates into a release mentally. I keep tension in my body, as many do. When you have the opportunity to get rid of that tension, everything – your whole body and your mind – relaxes.”

While student mental health and wellness efforts have grabbed headlines in recent months, programs like Living Well @ Western showcase how the well-being of faculty and staff remains a priority for the university. It is a commitment, Western officials stress, that is no longer ‘nice to have,’ but key to a progressive and healthy workplace.

“It’s important to adopt a broad perspective of health – one that weaves into all dimensions of our relationships and activities, including home, social, and work. As a learning organization, Western can be a leader in modelling the greater idea of health and a focus on mental health is an integral element,” explained Jane O’Brien, Associate Vice-President (Human Resources).

A recent survey of the Mental Health Commission of Canada showed that 70 per cent of Canadian employees are concerned about the psychological health and safety of their workplace, and 14 per cent don’t think theirs is healthy or safe at all.

About 30 per cent of short- and long-term disability claims in Canada are attributed to mental-health problems and illnesses. The total cost from mental-health problems to the Canadian economy exceeds $50 billion annually. In 2011, mental health problems and illnesses among working adults in Canada cost employers more than $6 billion in lost productivity from absenteeism, presenteeism and turnover.

The subject is so important that the university’s Student Mental Health and Wellness Strategic Plan committed to developing a mental health and wellness strategic plan for faculty and staff, O’Brien said.

Western has driven a number of initiatives focused on faculty and staff.

In 2015, the University launched Living Well @ Western, a campus-wide initiative designed to promote physical, cultural and intellectual activities to foster health and wellness among staff, faculty and students.

A year and a half in the making, the program grew out of a survey of faculty and staff, where 81 per cent of respondents said they were looking to be more physically active, and 59 per cent said they were looking for new approaches to stress management.

Over the years, Living Well @ Western has developed a series of free activities open to faculty, staff and graduate students. Activities currently include yoga, Full Body Bootcamp, Pilates, meditation, Kick-FIT and Zumba. Wellness coaches also visit workplaces on campus to offer customized wellness activities, including massage for the hands and feet, and stretching exercises.

The mind/body connection offered by the program, to faculty and staff like Rhuman, is an important aspect of the overall initiative, explained Adam Craig, Living Well @ Western Co-ordinator.

“Taking intermittent breaks to focus on your physical or mental wellness enhances your well-being, but also stimulates productivity and creativity in the workplace,” Craig said.

“Wellness is an important campus initiative. We want everyone to lead happy and healthy lives. Wellness is also highly individualized, so I’d encourage people to try a variety of activities to find out what works best for them.”

For information, including activities schedules visit Living Well @ Western.

When problems get more pressing, Western employees don’t have to do it alone, O’Brien stressed.

Through the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), faculty and staff can access practical help from trained, master’s level counsellors to help navigate a variety of life’s challenges. Provided through Family Service Thames Valley (FSTV), the counselling is an independent service situated off-campus to protect privacy.

Employees and their families can access up to 12 sessions per year, with costs covered by Western through an agreement with its employee associations and unions.

Cara Bourdeau, Senior HR Consultant (Total Rewards), oversees Western’s EAP. She finds there can be misconceptions surrounding the purpose of the program. While 24-hour emergency counselling is available for all employees through the service, they don’t have to be in crisis to use it.

“People don’t often recognize EAP can be used proactively to manage their health and wellness,” she explained. “It could just be someone’s New Year’s resolution is to find better strategies on how to manage X, Y and Z, so they decide to talk that over with someone.”

Qualified counsellors, financial consultants and health professionals are available to help employees manage wellbeing, enhance relationships, succeed at work, as well as explore child and elder care resources, obtain financial advice or improve their physical well-being.

“We can have our own baggage or a stigma around what it means to see a counsellor; that perhaps it means there’s something ‘wrong’ with us,” Bourdeau said. “Often, it’s those things we are tackling day-to-day where we need support in our lives to make things a little bit better. If we can address those short-term issues with a solution-focus, they don’t become long-term, chronic impairments in our lives.”

Bourdeau finds another barrier to employees using the program is a perceived fear the services are not anonymous and personal information will be shared with their employer.

“Confidentiality is integral to EAP programs – ours is absolutely confidential,” she said, noting the reporting Western receives annually from FSTV has no identifying information about its clients. “The most specific information we receive is a breakdown of the level of utilization by our different employee and union groups.”

Each year approximately 600 Western employees access the program, 60 per cent of whom have used it previously. The utilization rate for 2017-18 was 10.6 per cent across all employee groups.

Members of both employee and union groups are invited to have representation on the EAP Program Committee.

Going forward, Bourdeau said it’s important Western’s EAP service providers support a wholistic approach to health and wellbeing, similar to the one being adopted across the campus community.

“We know that we aren’t one person at work, and someone different at home and someone different at our church or synagogue, and so on. All aspects of ourselves carry over into all those different areas of our lives,” Bourdeau said. “EAP isn’t about Western just wanting you to be the best employee,” she continued. “It really is recognizing that not just mental health, but social wellbeing and physical wellbeing, are all important pieces of you showing up in your life. And Western happens to be part of that life.”

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