Diavik’s nutrition module of the Working on Wellness program begins in May. Courtesy of Diavik

The government of the Northwest Territories has launched a program to help companies encourage healthy lifestyle choices among aboriginal men: the people it believes are least likely to access the health care system. And local diamond miners, among the largest private employers in the N.W.T., are joining the effort.

The Working on Wellness program (WoW) was modelled on a module-based approach that proved successful in B.C. and Yukon. The N.W.T. initiative devotes a few months at a time toward promoting a specific wellness topic – such as nutrition, physical activity, mental health, tobacco cessation or UV awareness – inside participating workplaces. WoW is structured in such a way that it can be adapted to each worksite. Employees determine which topics get focus by detailing their preferences in a baseline survey.

The program is a partnership between the BC Healthy Living Alliance, the Canadian Cancer Society, B.C. and Yukon, the Council of Yukon First Nations and the Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance of Canada, and is jointly funded by the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer, the Heart and Stroke Foundation, and Health Canada.

Dr. Kami Kandola, deputy chief public health officer of the Northwest Territories, felt that the best way to extend health care access to aboriginal men was to approach major mining companies. The fly-in/fly-out schedule of a remote mining workplace provided the ideal setting to test WoW’s potential to influence the long-term choices employees make both in and out of the workplace that affect their health. “Someone comes here and has access to the best facilities and the best food, but how do you sustain these changes when they go home where they don’t have the same access?” Kandola said. “That’s something the mines have in mind.”

Diavik Diamond Mines, Dominion Diamond Ekati and De Beers Group agreed to participate in the pilot program, which will last until September 2016. At Diavik, where the workforce is 89 per cent male and 24.1 per cent aboriginal, employees surveyed last summer expressed an overwhelming desire for more resources related to physical activity, proper nutrition and mental health. These will make up the first three modules of the pilot program.

The physical activity module at Diavik began with “Map Our Fitness,” which asks employees to commit to 10 minutes of physical activity three times per week over the course of the four months. “It’s not the Health Canada, 30-minutes-per-day recommendation, but what we decided is that we want to really target the people who are not doing anything, just to make it a reasonable goal,” explained Cara Benoit, occupational hygienist at Diavik. The company will help employees brainstorm ideas for physical activities, such as walking, yoga or push-ups.

Participants were gifted an elastic band that offers light resistance for exercise and a pedometer, and entered into a prize draw. “We’re hoping that there’s going to be an effect of increased morale,” said Benoit. “We’re trying to show that we care about their health.”

The physical activity module was implemented in March at Diavik, and a nutrition module will begin in May. Ideally, each module would be allotted four months of focus. However, as the program is in development, there will be some crossover between modules.

Benoit pointed out that while WoW targeted the three diamond mining companies because of their male-dominated workforces with sizeable aboriginal populations, the program itself is not gender or culture specific. This is true for all participating sites.

A growing trend

A 2008 survey of Canada’s top 100 employers (according to the annual competition at canadastop100.com) revealed that 90 per cent had an employee wellness program in 2006, up from 44 per cent in 1997. Of the companies reviewed, 95 per cent agreed that the main motivation for implementing these programs was to increase employee satisfaction and engagement. Reducing disability and drug benefit costs were lower on companies’ list of priorities but still important factors. The study also showed that when companies tracked the results of these programs, the investment saved them money in the long run. Workplace wellness programs in Canada most commonly take the form of Employee Assistance programs (short-term counselling services), health seminars and fitness programs. Benefits Canada reported in 2013 that Dupont, Citibank, Prudential Insurance and Canada Life had a positive return on investment between $2 and $6.85 for every $1 spent.

Tracking the results

Frontline Medics is an occupational health services provider for the mining, oil and gas, and construction industries that is involved with implementing the WoW program at De Beers’ Snap Lake mine. CEO and medical director Dr. Ken Jenkins observed that with so many miners approaching middle age, companies are tuning into the risks that poor lifestyle choices pose to the overall functioning of operations.

“When you’re sick, you can’t do your job, so we may have to send you off-site,” he said. “When someone has a special skill that’s important to the functioning of the mine site, it can become a very big problem.”

To track WoW’s effectiveness, data collected from last summer’s baseline surveys will be compared against information that will be obtained during interim and final evaluations, planned for the summers of 2015 and 2016, respectively. Evaluations will consider participation, programs offered, and job satisfaction, as well as changes to policy, practice and environment. The results of the pilot program will inform how WoW will move forward.

“We know this is going to be a long-term project,” said Debbie Corrigan, occupational health nurse at Frontline Medics. “The hope is to embed [WoW] into the culture of the mine site: not only do [mines] produce diamonds, but their intent is to have the employee stay healthy – even leave their job healthier than when they started.”

The long-term goal of the WoW program is to reduce the incidence of chronic disease, and both Benoit and Kandola acknowledge that this will be difficult to measure. It is also hard to predict whether the WoW program will bring about the social change that everyone involved has claimed it has the potential for.

In spite of this uncertainty, Kandola has chosen to think big: “We’re hoping that they go home and share it with families. We feel that workplace wellness should translate into healthy families and healthy communities.”