SSQ combats absenteeism by nurturing managers’ leadership skills

By Alain Thériault | August 19 2016 07:00AM

Marie-Pierre St-Antoine

SSQ Financial Group’s wellness program launched in 2007 is curbing absenteeism by cultivating managers’ capacity to act on health and wellness.

Managers’ leadership, their ability to grasp the importance of action and their employee support skills can work miracles in health and wellness at work, Marie-Pierre St-Antoine explained in a conference at the Rassemblement pour la santé et le mieux-être en entreprise, a workplace health and wellness convention.

St-Antoine, a senior advisor, global health at SSQ Financial Group, tested out this formula in a business with over 2,000 employees. Covering sites across Canada, from Halifax, Quebec City, Montreal and Toronto to Calgary and Vancouver, participants were age 43 on average and 65% were female.

St-Antoine helps managers adopt leadership practices through the Healthwise program, launched in 2007. “The analysis began in 2005, sparked by health costs, including absenteeism. We thought developing leadership is a good start toward prevention,” she says. 

The program focuses on prevention, health promotion and managing attendance at work “according to the values of empowerment, support and equity,” St-Antoine continues. Her staff creates group courses, a library that offers employees books and DVDs on recipes or exercises, and health challenges. Selfie recognition campaigns invite colleagues to recognize their colleagues’ efforts. SSQ is also sponsoring two marathons.

During the health and wellness program, SSQ put in place a management practice protocol that greatly reduces the relapse rate after a return to work. A leadership program launched between 2010 and 2012 improved several factors, St-Antoine says. SSQ saw its absenteeism rate fall by 44% since 2007,– 32% in the first three years–, she adds. Since 2007, psychological disability cases were down 18%.

To fine-tune its efforts, SSQ explored the roots of a climate of absenteeism. Absences arise from adverse conditions, when employees feel that their skills are underused, and that they have no influence, recognition or autonomy, the company found. “We strived to reinforce individual resiliency, recognition and social support,” she explains.

The challenges? The insurer “had to empower managers and make them realize that taking care of health and prevention is also part of their job,” St-Antoine adds.

 Leadership and conviction

St-Antoine attributes the success of the wellness program to a global vision. “A health culture makes a real difference for wellness in an organization, which maximizes the program’s results.” Yet to change a culture you must also convince people. “Go see top management with a good business plan. Try to get support from all managerial levels. We took a benefit approach. Present the program in a way that will help managers attain their objectives,” she says.

SSQ also restructured its leadership program. The latest incarnation is called the LEAD program, which stands for leadership, engagement, action and development. It features four levels: Executive Leader, Influential Leader, Effective Leader, and Succession Leader, which remains to be developed, she says. 

The far-reaching Effective Leader training is designed to stimulate managers’ empowerment and coaching abilities, and teach them the importance of action. “The worst scenario is doing nothing. Even if the manager’s actions are a bit awkward and they’re not sure if they’re on the right track, the employee will say ‘the manager cares about me.’”

St-Antoine and her team have identified the health management practices that pay off the most. Managers must set an example and create conditions conducive to health. They should demonstrate their interest in health and in the programs put in place. In short, be a role model. This is called primary intervention.

In secondary, or early intervention, managers must try to detect the warning signs, know how to discuss them with employees, and propose accommodations.

Tertiary prevention involves favouring work attendance and ensuring that the employees return to work under optimal conditions. “Maintaining contact with employees during their absence is essential. We train our managers to do this well,” St-Antoine says.

Managers gain from discussing with both the employee returning to work and that persons’ team, to see how everyone anticipates the return, she explains. “The point of all this is to reduce anxiety about the return. The first day is a yardstick of the success of the return to work. Sometimes we delay the employee’s return by a few days to make sure that the manager is present when the person returns to work.” After the return, follow-up is crucial.