Creating a culture of wellness at your nonprofit: Advice from this year's Employee Recommended Workplace Awards winners

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“Many people want to work for organizations whose mission they love and support,” an HR consultant once told me, “but they really ought to be looking for those that offer a superior human resources experience.” This is especially true in the nonprofit, charitable and public sectors where employees are often drawn to organizations specifically because of passion for the mission — only to find out that the experience of working for the organization doesn’t quite match up to its lofty vision, mission and values statements.

But sometimes it does.

Two years ago, human resources consulting and technology company Morneau Shepell, together with The Globe and Mail, decided to honour those Canadian organizations that do provide stellar employee experiences by teaming up to offer the Employee Recommended Workplace Award (ERWA). The only award based entirely on feedback from employees, the Employee Recommended Workplace Award recognizes excellence in achieving a healthy, engaged and productive workforce across all sectors.

“Workplace stress and isolation continue to affect employees at a higher rate each year, making it significantly more difficult for employers to achieve positive total well-being of all employees,” said Stephen Liptrap, president and chief executive officer at Morneau Shepell. “The 2019 Employee Recommended Workplace Award recipients recognize that successfully supporting the physical, mental, work and life health of employees is critical to creating a healthy workplace culture and to improving the bottom line."

Employees at each participating organization complete a short confidential survey that asks about their physical and mental health as well as their work and life. They each receive a report that gives them a score on their total health and offers ideas for improving their wellbeing. Their organization then receives a summary report that shows areas of strength and improvement for the health of their staff.

Organizations were divided by sector (public, nonprofit, for-profit and publicly traded companies) and size (small, medium and large) with those with the highest scores among participants being awarded the Employee Recommended Workplace Award.

In 2017, its first year, winners were chosen from 32 finalists; in 2018, there were 53 finalists and in 2019, 12 award winners across sectors were chosen from 75 finalists. The awards were presented in a ceremony on March 19, 2019 following the Solving Workplace Challenges Summit at The Globe and Mail Centre in Toronto.

The nonprofit winners were OCAS Application Services Inc.; Aéroport de Quebec Inc, and CAA Club Group, while the governmental winners were the Town of Kentville, Northwestern Health Unit and NB Power.

In addition to drawing from a larger pool of organizations, this year marked a new partnership with TalentEgg, CharityVillage and Bmeaningful serving as the Employee Recommended Workplace Award’s inaugural recruitment community partners.

“Because TalentEgg, CharityVillage and Bmeaningful are committed to helping professionals find meaningful work to move their careers forward, we're excited to promote the top organizations receiving this award as ideal employers for the candidates using our platforms,” said Mary Barroll, president, TalentEgg.

For this reason and in the belief that a rising tide lifts all boats, we talked with some of the top nonprofit and public sector organizations receiving this award to learn some of the best practices that led their employees to praise their work.


Based in Guelph, Ontario, with a staff of approximately 85 employees, OCAS (formerly the Ontario College Application Service) describes their focus as “creating new pathways for applicants to explore and connect with Ontario’s colleges, and on delivering the trusted tools and services that help support our college partners.” OCAS vice-president, customer and employee success, David Hong, says their CEO saw an advertisement about ERWA and thought it was a good idea for helping employees get an assessment of their own health. The organization also valued the feedback of the award system as it gave them data about whether to continue or change some of the programs they’ve established.

Hong himself was hired six years ago by OCAS’ then-new CEO who wanted to bring some cultural change to the organization. He describes their approach as a “whole person philosophy” where they acknowledge and address the multiple roles an employee plays within their life. This means that the corporate training they provide is useful in all parts of life. OCAS has offered training in subjects such as empathy, having difficult conversations and self-awareness. This philosophy also means that managers meet with employees for one-on-one meetings every two weeks, addressing not only a work task list but also an employee’s emotional state and other aspects of their life. Hong says, “This approach is good for business, allowing us to function properly and have excellent communication skills and built-in trust. It also helps us to be better people.” OCAS’s attrition rates are very low — typically 5% a year — with employees, as the award would indicate, being generally happy and bringing positive energy to their work.

Town of Kentville

Kentville, Nova Scotia has a population of 6271 people, with approximately 18 of their residents working for the Town of Kentville. “We all know it’s a wonderful place to work,” says executive assistant Jennifer West, “but we’re honoured to receive the Employee Recommended Workplace Award to know how we compare to other groups in an independent assessment of the wellness and happiness of staff.” In fact, the Town of Kentville is a repeat winner, having won an ERWA in 2017.

“From the management down, we really have a culture that encourages connections between staff, and wants staff to be happy and healthy,” says West. “When something isn’t working, we want to fix it and not let things fester.” West identifies long-time town CAO, Mark Phillips, as encouraging a culture that makes the Town both a fun and hardworking place to work, but also notes that staff are participants in the creation of this healthy workplace. The Town has established a rooftop garden and a small gym for employee wellness and has made a point of cultivating small, fun, meaningful activities to help employees enjoy their work and feel appreciated. For several years, the town’s directors have annually cooked either a breakfast or lunch for town staff and public works employees, while town staff celebrate special occasions in fun and creative ways. Because the majority of the staff have public-facing roles, they often extend the sense of play to include town residents – with activities such as Random Act of Pie Day where the town mascot gives out pies made at the local Apple Valley Food pie factory. “We don’t have teams of staff working on health and wellness. We’re just a small town and we want to take care of each other,” says West.

Northwestern Health Unit

The Northwestern Health Unit (NWHU) has 140 staff in offices in 13 municipalities stretching across one-fifth of the province of Ontario, in an area where the population is also widely spread out. This doesn’t sound like a recipe for an ideal employee engagement and yet the health unit was the winner in the mid-sized government organization category. Marilyn Herbacz, Manager - Human and Financial Resources, points to a number of factors that made their organization stand out but says that at its core, the organization — focused on promoting health in their communities – works hard to practice what they preach, building in policies and procedures that encourage the same healthy practices within the organization as they promote to the communities.

“We really try to encourage a positive workplace culture and work-life balance for our employees,” says Herbacz. This includes offering alternate work plans that support this balance in times of need, as well as policies like offering family sick days. “In our region, if someone has to take an elderly parent to an appointment, this can mean traveling to a larger centre to access service. Our employees are really grateful that we’ve recognized this reality and have provided for it.” NWHU staff also say that the organization offers fair compensation, excellent vacation, adequate sick days, group benefit plans for health and dental, as well as an employee family assistance program where employees can access counselling services, legal counsel and financial planning help.

NWHU also addresses the challenge of their large catchment area by hosting a biannual all-staff conference. “We often meet electronically or by Skype but the conference really helps team building so we can work well together.”

The organization also regularly engages in evaluations so that employees and managers can look at where employees are within their life cycle at the health unit, and so the organization can figure out what staff need and use the results of surveys to try to make positive change within the organization. Despite this practice, Herbacz says the organization was thrilled to have the ERWA employee evaluations as a confidential outside look at how their organization was doing, and is delighted that the NWHU staff indicated that they were healthy and that the organization should get the award.

Like other finalists and winners, Hong says, “We’re always open to listening and thinking about other ideas. And we’d like to apply again for the ERWA: we want the data and we are hoping it will give employees information about their well-being too.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for more than two decades and loves a good story.

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