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Working wellness into the job

by Margaret Harris
Christopher Felgate is a wellness officer whose job is to take care of the health of employees at BSG. He tells Margaret Harris that wellness initiatives with incentives are the most effective

What does your work as a wellness officer involve?

I look after wellness in the company. This is a general statement, but every offering - from a corporate massage for stress release to healthier snacks at meetings - relates in some way to caring for all employees at BSG [Business Systems Group].

Why do companies need wellness officers?

Not all companies need wellness officers. However, if a South African company would like to follow the lead of some of the top companies, it can appoint a wellness officer or create a wellness division in the company to keep its workforce healthy and productive.

In an article analysing wellness programmes in the US, Lee Dukes, president of the Principle Wellness Company, said: "In the wake of the financial crisis, which has left many companies stretched thin, maintaining a productive workforce is a priority for organisations." BSG believes in adopting this attitude, which led to my full-time employment to look after wellness and pride at BSG.

If employees feel healthy, engaged and motivated, they will do things not because they are important for the business, but because they are important to them. In the end, the bottom-line business results will take care of themselves.

What qualifications do you have and how do they help you to do your job?

I have two BSc degrees - an undergraduate degree in human kinetics and ergonomics and a postgraduate degree in exercise rehabilitation science.

The postgraduate degree was done in Australia and there was a module on health promotion in corporations, which is where my passion for this came from.

These degrees assisted me with the foundation and knowledge with which to build my profession. In any specialist degree, as more research is conducted, there will always be new findings.

However, through the foundation knowledge I have, these new findings make me excited.

You are a triathlete and concerned about your fitness. How does this affect the way you approach employee wellness at work?

My experiences as a double Olympic triathlete and now training for my first marathon do mean I am focused on the input and output of the body and mind.

I call this holistic wellness and it is the underlying factor of any wellness programme. Holistic wellness takes into consideration physical, physiological, mental and spiritual aspects, which is the approach I adopt.

What did you want to be when you were a child?

As a child, I didn't have a specific profession in mind. I have been very active since I was young and my ability and passion developed with time. I knew what I would do would relate in some way to this, as well as to interacting with people.

What are the benefits, in terms of your working life, of being healthier?

Personally, exercising each week and eating healthily help me retain focus for longer periods of time and I go for long periods without falling ill.

Staying healthy throughout the week means I don't need the weekend to catch up on sleep and I have more time to do the things I want to do, which in turn makes me more positive when returning to work on Monday.

Why should companies care if their employees are healthy?

Some of the benefits include reducing absenteeism, increasing worker productivity and retaining talented individuals.

What sorts of wellness initiatives work and what are the reasons for their success?

The most successful initiatives reach as many people as possible, such as simple, cost-effective initiatives that provide fresh fruit and have filtered water available.

We recently completed a "Change a Habit for 21 Days" challenge in which employees signed up to the challenge by selecting their own habit to change from a list of 30 habits.

They were then tracked each week and the winner received a full-body massage voucher.

Incentivised programmes often have the greatest results. If each initiative can appeal to as large an audience as possible, it will have a sustainable and lengthy success rate.

Why do many wellness programmes battle to get off the ground?

Other than annual company wellness days, which most companies do, most wellness initiatives are forgotten about until the next year.

My question is: Why have these wellness days in the first place if you are not going to follow up and help your employees understand the values they scored in the various tests? The lack of communication of the reasoning behind any wellness programme or initiative will reduce the likelihood of its success.

The programmes must mean something to employees and not just be a box that is ticked for the company. Offering wellness initiatives during work hours will also increase their success rate.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to do the work you do?

Be passionate and flexible about helping others. Be willing to learn and adapt to as many personalities and job grades as possible. Be willing to live "the talk" and, of course, walk it.

What is the best career advice you ever received?

Greg Reis, the CEO of BSG, says: "Control the controllables and stop worrying and wasting energy on the rest."

Useful resources:
Business Times
Business news and analysis supplement with a popular, people-orientated approach.
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