By: Annamarie Fuchs, Creator. Partners in Health | Conversations

February 23, 2024

According to the World Economic Forum’s report from the United Nations Population Division,[1] global life expectancy has risen from 46.5 years in 1950 to 71.7 years in 2022 and is expected to rise to 77.3 in 2050. However, in Canada in 2011, Canadians[2] live on average, 81.7 years which is an increase of 24.6 years since 1921 with nearly half of all gains occurring in the period between 1921 and 1951, largely due to reduced infant mortality and with further reductions in death from circulatory diseases reported since 1951. Canadians have enjoyed long life and access to excellent basic healthcare, thanks in large part to the Honorable Thomas “Tommy” Douglas’s lifelong advocacy for building our public, national system of universal healthcare which was launched 65 years ago and the first of its kind in North America.[3]

Over time however, our ability to maintain and enjoy quality of life is declining. After age 65, functional health for Canadians begins to rapidly decrease with more severe disability occurring at only age 77.[4] We need an intentional focus on wellness as a means to manage our increasing reliance on healthcare, hospital care, and long-term care. And we need to ensure preservation of a system of universal healthcare that many of us consider the envy of the world.

Alberta Blue Cross has been supporting Albertans to maintain their health and wellness for 75 years. In 2018 the organization’s Leadership team and the Board of Directors initiated discussions about how they might take the next step in their own organizational wellness journey by committing to wellness as a core strategic priority. It was as their unique and innovative journey unfolded that Alberta Blue Cross began to evolve from an organization that offers supplemental health products to one that will enable both organizational and community wellness where they hope to ultimately influence widespread cultural change.  I’ve been a member of the Board of Directors at Alberta Blue Cross (ABC) since 2016 and today, I am speaking with Mark Razzolini, Senior Vice President, and Chief People Officer about Alberta Blue Cross’s own remarkable wellness journey.

Mark, welcome to Partners in Health | Conversations! You and I both know that ABC has been committed to championing and supporting wellness for decades. The work of the Foundation alone has been incredibly successful in supporting wellness initiatives in communities across the province and our commitment to our own staff has allowed us to enjoy high levels of employee engagement and career longevity. However, let’s talk about ABC’s decision to strengthen our own approach to organizational and community wellness as a first step in influencing other organizations to make a similar commitment.

You’re right Annamarie. I think our conversations around wellness began to change in about 2018. The subject of wellness was certainly becoming more commonplace in the market and while we knew we were contributing in meaningful ways to wellness, we also knew we could play a much bigger role. But to understand what that role should look like, we had to be realistic and very strategic in how we would strengthen the wellness continuum, first for our own people, then our customers, and then for our communities.

We started out by asking ourselves “what’s working and what’s not?” We knew one thing for certain – so many of the latest attempts to improve wellness such as wearables, the latest diet crazes, and basic employee wellness packages were simply not going to be enough to create or to support the change we hoped to be part of. We knew that we wanted to make a critical difference in the wellness market by creating capacity to transform cultures by considering the needs of people, the organizations they work for, and the communities they live and play in.

There is a great deal of market “noise” that influences the choices people make in their genuine effort to become healthy and to achieve a sense of overall wellness. But the evidence just isn’t there to support any of those things making a lasting difference. We were looking to create a strategy that would result in long-term sustainable change for people and for the organizations we serve.

So, where did that emerging awareness take you?

Well, once we understood what we wanted to achieve as an organization, we knew we would not simply take a product approach to wellness. We took a cultural approach in order to drive real behavior change and better health outcomes.  And behavior change takes time! It’s also important to remember that wellness is different for each of us.

ABC is in the business of offering supplemental health and wellness benefits alongside life and travel insurance. From that standpoint, we knew that organizations in their effort to support their employees with comprehensive benefits packages, were also looking for wellness interventions to reinforce their overall investment in benefits. But like I’ve already explained, most of the positive outcomes that come from those interventions are short lived.

We’ve all seen initiatives like the stair climbing campaigns, or incentives to park further away from the building entrances, employee walking groups, walking meetings, and more. These are all great things to do for sure.  The problem with any of these, however, is that while the intention may be great, the approach becomes the solution, and we have to start looking for the positive outcomes that come only with long-term sustainable behavior change.

I hear you. We’ve all been seduced by the latest shiny wellness objects, whatever they are at the time. But if we know those are rarely successful in the long term, how do employers recognize they can take a more intentional role in supporting wellness? But more importantly, what do employees want? It seems to me that the generations entering the workforce in the last decade are looking for something different from an employer and they’re willing to keep looking until they find the right fit for them. Would you agree?

Absolutely. For the most part, organizations in the past, looked at benefit packages as a ‘one and done.’ In other words, they wanted providers like ABC to offer a wellness package of benefits and services to allow them to check the box so to speak. But that doesn’t meet the needs of employees any longer. People are looking for evidence that organizations actually care about the things they care about, and they want to see that employers will offer ways to empower employees to be successful inside and outside the workplace.  Therefore, we needed to look deeper and ask our customers questions like:

  • How do you engage your employees?
  • What are the policies and programs you have in place to support your employees every day?
  • What do you want to achieve with a wellness solution?
  • Do you have a strategy to support this?

We needed to think about the employee’s journey with the employer so that we could set the right conditions for wellness to work. And by that, I mean that wellness solutions needed to give people the tools they need to achieve the outcomes they’re looking for and provide the right conditions for that to happen.  And when that happens, the data tells us that life expectancy, happiness, and financial stability increase right alongside an organization’s commitment to wellness.[5]


What sort of outcomes are we talking about?

For organizations, we’re talking about reductions in sick time, shorter durations of disability time, employee engagement, productivity, longevity with the organization, and more. At the community level the literature tells us those investments in wellness will result in overall population level increases in happiness, healthier eating, improvements in physical activity, public health, prevention, and more.[6]

 So, obviously wellness is good for organizations, for communities, for countries, and as a critical strategy for managing the demands of our health systems. If that’s what employers and governments are looking to achieve, what specifically are potential employees asking for?

That’s where the rubber meets the road. Employees no longer define themselves by their jobs. The employment value proposition used to be all about longevity and loyalty – establishing and maintaining a career. Now that mindset has shifted where employees are looking for engagement and a lifestyle! They want an employer to demonstrate that by working for them, they can have a lifestyle that respects their need for their life at work and their life and purpose outside of work.  In other words, they are also looking for evidence about how the organization supports community and global wellness and social purpose. For many employees, having access to benefit packages that support them as individuals is important. However, it’s also important to work for an organization that truly cares about the employee as a whole.

When you think of wellness from a broader cultural approach like that, the only way to get there is to establish relationships that are built on trust – between the employer and the employee. The employer basically says “these are the expectations I have of you and here’s what I can do for you that will enable you to be well and ultimately successful when you’re at work, when you’re out in the community, and at home.” The employee, in return, then has the opportunity to contribute in much more meaningful ways to the success of the organization because they see themselves in a deeper relationship with the employer. A real win- win!

That’s a significant change from where I was 40 years ago when I embarked on my own career path. Yikes!   

 It is. But it’s a good thing. And to do this right, we knew that at ABC we had to walk our talk. We began by working with our own team members first – asking them what they needed and what they hoped to see ABC achieve from a wellness point of view over time. And in these last few years we have learned a lot! Today we have 1350 ambassadors. Our people play incredibly active roles in contributing to personal and community wellness which has given us tremendous credibility when we approach organizations as potential customers in the wellness space.  

With that success under our belt, we began to evolve toward creating our new “Advisory Services” role which has been tremendously satisfying. We couldn’t have had these conversations years ago but now more and more individuals and organizations are ready. CEOs and People Leaders are really beginning to push the wellness agenda. They are looking for advice about how we can support them to achieve their goals – to build wellness cultures so that their own teams become wellness ambassadors in their organizations and in their communities where they live and shop and play. More and more we are seeing large and mid-sized companies looking to set corporate wellness plans in motion.

Research shows that companies with a wellness standard do better financially than those who do not. We’ve already cited some data from the Global Wellness Institute that a wellness economy is strongly and positively correlated with happiness at the country level… with outcomes associated with improvements in healthy life expectancy, decreased risk of premature death from four noncommunicable diseases, and more. And they also report that workplace wellness is the only sector that shows a strong and statistically significant relationship with all five of the health outcomes indicators as well as happiness across countries.[7]

We also know that an organization’s characteristics from a perspective broader than just spending money on workplace wellness programs needs to encompass their corporate values, potential community impact, and more. It seems to me that this is what will ultimately lead to the cultural change that ABC’s Wellness Advisory Services is hoping to achieve.

Absolutely.  We are taking a leadership role by working with customers in new ways to set them up for success. When customers (organizations) are successful, the entire community benefits. When we approach our customers, we ask them how we can support them in their wellness journey. We challenge them to think strategically about wellness.  We are asking them to take small and intentional steps that will ultimately lead to long-term change because we know that changes are not immediate and dramatic. Change happens slowly and steadily over time.  Any real and sustainable movements start this way! And when organizations are successful, the entire community benefits as well!

 There’s no doubt in my mind that at ABC we are exactly where we need to be in terms of our decision back in 2018 to embark on our wellness journey where we are now able to offer corporate Wellness Advisory Services. But tell me what this journey has been like for you as a leader?

When I first took on the responsibility of leading this effort, people asked “what’s the VP of People doing leading wellness not only for our employees but for our whole book of business?” To be honest, having someone in my role take on a project like this may be unusual but when you think about it, it’s a brilliant strategy. People VP’s live and breathe employee support, culture, people opportunities and challenges every day! Basically, these are all the topics directly related to wellness. If I’m responsible to implement a wellness strategy for 1350 people, it makes sense that I should be involved right from the beginning for our customers as well.

 Now that we are well into the implementation of our own wellness strategy, we can legitimately speak with experience to current and future customers about considering this approach. We know personally that it’s not just about putting an initiative in place and checking the boxes. We revisited policies, evaluated behaviors, trends, and organizational needs and only then were we sure that we were on the right track and had created the right strategy for our people and our organization.

 We had to assess whether we had set the right conditions to make the wellness strategy work and frankly, I had to ask myself every day to think about how we were going to challenge our current culture and consider where we wanted to be in 5 years or more. That step honestly became foundational in achieving long term success.

 So how are you approaching potential new customers now that ABC has had our own wellness strategy underway for some time?

We start by building off the great relationships we already have with our customers, and then deepening those relationships by being a trusted advisor in wellness. We no longer merely talk about the suite of products we can offer. We sit down and ask them where they are currently as an organization from a people and business perspective. We know we need to have an understanding about what conditions are needed to create a strategic and stepwise approach to wellness so we can enable them to put a plan in motion that will result in sustainable success. We want to help our customers succeed – not just in the wellness space with their employees but as a unique organization with influence well beyond the front doors of their workplaces.

 And it’s already been incredibly gratifying. We are hearing from customers – comments like ‘you’ve saved us two years of time’… or ‘you’ve helped us to make this really work within our culture’… and ‘you’ve helped us to build a better organization.’

You’ve been living the wellness journey for several years now Mark. Do you have any words of wisdom for leaders who are just getting started?

Well, I can tell you that it doesn’t happen overnight! Take bite sized steps toward a well established set of goals. Over time, those steps will evolve to where wellness simply becomes part of the organizational culture. When it becomes habit, it can become sustainable and that’s what we all want.

If you think about other movements in the past like the women’s movement, the gay rights movement and more, it’s clear that the successes we are seeing today took years to unfold. Communities, governments, and people all needed to think about fairness and equity from a much clearer and broader lens before the stage was set for true cultural transformation. It’s the same with wellness. As the journey progresses, you will see how one step moves you to the next step and then to the next one. And some days it will feel like an uphill battle, but it is worth it! That said, I say, as leaders, cut yourself some slack, take a breath, and appreciate what you’re learning along the way. And one day, when you realize the wellness conversation has become second nature, you’ll know that cultural change is unfolding. That’s when you’ll also know that you are part of a team of people who are truly living that change.

I want to close by saying that ABC will be with our customers and partners every step of the way. We will encourage organizations not to complicate the process but to appreciate where they are today, identify the next best step, and be deliberate about where they can expect to be in the next 5 years. And trust me, you’ll get there!

Thank you for such an insightful conversation Mark! As I move on next year from my role as a member of the Board of Directors for ABC where I’ve seen firsthand what wellness as a core strategic priority can do for an organization and the communities it serves, I know that ABC’s journey has also just begun! I can’t wait to see how you continue to evolve.

I am asking everyone I interview this year to close by telling me what wellness means to them. The last word is yours Mark!

Wow. Well, for me wellness means I can live my best life. I believe strongly that wellness is a journey and it’s not a one-size-fits-all. I challenge myself everyday to think about what I need to work on. And I’m learning to say “it’s okay” when I’m not having my best day either! Every day, I try to do one thing that is associated with my own wellness needs. That may be something like physical exercise, but it may not. It may be that I need to build in time to spend with people I care about. I might catch up with some friends and walk the stairs in my community. Or I might feel compelled to help others to recognize that their own efforts are paying off in terms of what wellness means to them. I feel like I’ve become a wellness ambassador and that is something that I’m truly proud of! I guess my final comment is to tell people not to listen to that voice in your head that says you’re failing. YOU’RE NOT! You’re human. You’re on a journey. And you’re going to have twists and turns on that journey. When we slip, we need to forgive ourselves and move on. At the end of the day, wellness is about your whole life, which is a marathon, not a sprint.









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