Unique Wellness Program Connects Employees with Olympians

Update: Canada's Roseline Filion took a bronge medal with teammate Meaghan Benfeito in the women's synchronized 10-meter platform (diving) competition Aug. 9.

By Kathy Gurchiek Aug 5, 2016
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When Olympians Roseline Filion and Mark de Jonge march into Maracanã Stadium tonight for the Opening Ceremony of the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Christy Theriault Kaiser will—in a sense—be marching with them.

She and her fellow employees at HR consultant Morneau Shepell have forged a relationship with the two elite Canadian athletes through the Toronto-based company's "Getting to Your Gold" program. Filion, 29, and de Jonge, 32, have served as the company's wellness ambassadors since February while training for their respective diving and canoe/kayak competitions.

"It was always very inspiring when you saw them as a fellow Canadian" competing in past Olympic Games, said Theriault Kaiser, the company's senior director, marketing and communications. But this year it will be more personal for Theriault Kaiser since she connected with the two bronze-medal winners through her company's wellness program.

This is Filion's third Olympics and de Jonge's second. De Jonge is considered the favorite to win the K1 200m event, according to a CBS Olympics report. The athletes have been motivating and inspiring Morneau Shepell employees via blog entries, videos and social media posts on wellness topics such as coping with stress, the importance of rest, physical fitness and nutrition. They have used their iPhones to include employees in their activities, such as during workouts and at the time trials.

"We can see, day-by-day, what they're doing," like de Jonge lifting weights and doing chin-ups as part of his strength training, Theriault Kaiser told SHRM Online. "You really do feel like you're a part of their team."

Theriault Kaiser, who enjoys playing tennis, running and mountain biking, has long been an Olympics fan. She recalled watching the 2004 Summer Games in the middle of the night while feeding her newborn daughter. She noted she never realized the depth and breadth of the athletes' training until she participated in Morneau Shepell's wellness program.

"It really is awe-inspiring," she said.

Athletes as Wellness Ambassadors

The company is the official "Mental Health Partner" of Canada's 2016 Olympic team, and while Filion and de Jonge train elsewhere in Canada, other Olympians train near the Toronto office. Patrick Cerullo, senior vice president of global operations and employee support solutions at Morneau Shepell, sees similarities between Olympians and employees. Elite athletes can teach workers how to manage stress, he wrote in an Aug. 1 column in The Globe and Mail.

"Understanding the parallel pressures affecting both athletes and employees," such as pressure to meet goals and deadlines, the mental and physical exhaustion from training or working long hours, and the pressure to succeed, "can help us increase resiliency in the workplace." 

Athletes make good wellness ambassadors, according to Tricia Doyle, Morneau Shepell's director of brand integration. They can motivate in an exciting way, she told SHRM Online, and "they really love sharing the knowledge that they have." 

Interacting with the athletes this way, Doyle said, "You feel like you're front row with the Olympics. It's such an honor" to have them as wellness ambassadors. 

She worked with the company's HR team to implement "Getting to Your Gold" throughout its 20 offices in Canada and the U.S. The program is made up of four pillars: physical activity, nutrition, rest/sleep, and managing stress/mental wellness. The latter includes topics such as mental and financial health.  

The focus is on "healthy living in every aspect of your life," Doyle said. 

Employees access the wellness program through an online portal that houses different Olympic spirit-themed challenges, a step tracker, a leader board, and health and wellness polls. About 30 percent of the company's nearly 4,000 employees are participating in some way. 

Current challenges that the 125-employee teams have taken up focus on some sort of physical activity, with steps tracked. (The program is set up so that time spent swimming, for example, can be converted into steps.) The company sponsors a girls' school in Africa, and the grand prize for the most steps accumulated during the summer challenge will be a donation of sports equipment to the school in that team's name. 

Theriault Kaiser is on a team whose members are in offices in Toronto, Montreal, Atlanta and along the U.S. East Coast. The camaraderie and friendly peer pressure has helped to motivate her, she said: She upped her running regimen from three to five times a week to increase her step count. 

The company plans to invite employees to watch the Olympics during work hours when Filion and de Jonge compete, Doyle said. One of the diving events is scheduled for 3 p.m. Eastern time on Aug. 9, for example. However, there will be no communication between athletes and employees during the games.

"We respect that the Olympics is what they've been working toward the last four years. We will do nothing to interrupt them," Doyle said. "We will send messages to them" but employees are not expecting to receive any response. "This is their moment."

Morneau Shepell, which is offering this wellness program to its clients, is committed to continuing it through 2020, Doyle said. In January 2017, for example, "when everybody's coming back from the holidays, the focus will be on nutrition."

"What the athlete knows goes well beyond the Olympics," she pointed out. "They're experts, and they will continue to provide their expertise. Life doesn't end after the Olympics; they take a little break. They're always on the run-up" to some other competition.

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