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Optimizing Employees’ Physical Health in the Evolving World of Work

Healthy workers are more productive, less stressed and less likely to take sick leave. A workplace that encourages employees to be physically active and stay well helps to create a culture of wellbeing that is very attractive to current and prospective employees.

However, what the workplace looks like has been changed by Covid-19. With many people still working remotely and on-site facilities unavailable, what steps can employers take to ensure that they continue to look after their employees’ physical health?

The pandemic has turned traditional ways of working upside down.

For many people forced to work remotely, the line between home and work became increasingly difficult to discern. Despite the efforts of certain companies and even a few governments to get employees back to their offices, it now looks like many employees will never return to the office full time. In fact, in Goodhire’s State of Remote Work 2021 survey[1], 68% of Americans stated that they would prefer to work remotely after the pandemic. Within this new context, managing employees’ physical wellbeing has become much more complex for employers.


While the top four relate to mental health, it is true that mental and physical health can be inextricably linked. A physical injury or long-term musculoskeletal pain can lead to stress, anxiety and depression. Meanwhile, the risk of developing chronic conditions such as diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure increases with physical inactivity. The point is that mental and physical health conditions can compound each other, creating more challenges for employees, and a spiral of cost and productivity issues for employers.

By encouraging employees to stay physically fit and stepping in to help when they spot the signs of poor physical health, organizations can reduce the incidence of chronic conditions and support good mental health in their workforce as well. The challenge is how to do it inclusively and effectively now that many workforces are split across remote and physical locations.

In this article, we look at ways of enhancing employees’ physical health in the hybrid workplace and discover how the HR team at Sanofi are enabling physical health as part of a holistic wellbeing strategy.

With insights from:

  • Sara Ahlfeld, Head of Benefits - Canada, Sanofi
  • Erin Murphy-Sheriffs, Associate Vice President, Wellbeing Solutions, Aon
  • Jim Winkler, Global Advisory & Specialty Leader, Aon Health Solutions


Make Fitness Flexible

Sanofi is a global biopharmaceutical company focused on human health. As a business with a laser sharp focus on patient care, leadership recognizes this can sometimes come at the cost of team members losing focus on their own wellbeing.


‘Sanofi employees are very committed to the work they do. Sometimes they're so focused on patients that they lose focus on themselves. While employees do their best to look after themselves, I think that we can all do better. Resilience is important, especially in the work that we do because our focus is on patients. And if we're not well enough to be at work and be productive, and to contribute in the way that we need to, it impacts the lives of our patients. We need our employees to be healthy and well so that we can deliver on our healthcare promises to the patients.’

Sara Ahlfeld, Head of Benefits - Canada, Sanofi


Before the pandemic, many employers’ physical wellbeing programs were focused on delivering on-site initiatives, such as employee fitness centers and healthy cafeterias. Sanofi’s Canadian business was no different, with a variety of on-site facilities for employees to use. However, at the start of the pandemic the company was forced to split its workforce between essential on-site production and remote working. 


‘Because of the physical demands of the work that people do, we'd done very well with supporting physical health. But when the pandemic hit, half of our population started working from home and the on-site gym closed. So we had to consider what we could offer our people who were still on-site while also looking after our people who were working from home. How could we keep them all healthy?’

Sara Ahlfeld, Head of Benefits - Canada, Sanofi


A significant feature of Sanofi’s Canadian workforce is that it has both English and French speaking employees. With this in mind, the business worked with Aon to introduce a wide range of online fitness programs that could be enjoyed by all team members in both English and French.


‘Part of what we did with Sanofi is we looked at fitness providers for apps and because our workforce is bilingual, we have two providers. For the employee, it's one experience, but there are two providers behind the scenes. One is based in Montreal, so the app of the program is available in French to meet the language needs and be inclusive for that group of employees. The other one is an English one.

Erin Murphy-Sheriffs, Associate Vice President, Wellbeing Solutions, Aon


By focusing on employees’ unique and individual needs, Sanofi continues to provide a range of online fitness activities designed to meet the needs of its diverse workforce. It allows employees with different workplaces, fitness levels, family structures and schedules to engage with physical wellbeing activities in a way that suits them best.


Minimizing Musculoskeletal Issues for Remote Workers

Training employees how to look after their physical wellbeing while working from home is critical for employers to ensure they meet their duty of care towards their staff.


‘Musculoskeletal issues have long been a top five cost driver[3] for organizations, both in terms of occupational health, such as the worker's compensation side, as well as the core benefits plan. And that's only gotten worse through COVID-19. We're all more sedentary, with many people working from home in less than ideal ergonomic situations.’

Jim Winkler, Global Advisory & Strategy Leader, Aon Health Solutions


Workplace ergonomics has always been high on the agenda for Sanofi. However, the pandemic forced the company to reappraise the way in which it approached the subject with its employees.


‘Ergonomics in the workplace is huge for us. From a physical health standpoint, our Toronto facility is a production facility and we have people who are on their feet all day. Preventing musculoskeletal injuries is high priority because if our employees are in pain or can't work, it will impact our patients. For our remote workers a big part of that was how to assess ergonomics at home. We moved away from ‘we can come and do an ergo assessment for you at your desk’, to 'here's some tools and resources to help you get set up in a way that will protect your health.'

Sara Ahlfeld, Head of Benefits - Canada, Sanofi


Employers that leave remote staff to work it out for themselves when it comes to ergonomics risk increased incidence of injury, with the attendant loss of productivity and engagement, as well as potential liability for personal injury claims. By incorporating some simple e-learning tools, organizations can help their remote workforce set up home workstations correctly, ensuring physical comfort and reducing risk of musculoskeletal issues.


Small Change, Big Difference: Encouraging a Culture of Wellbeing

Just as every employee is unique, so too is every organization. At Aon, we recognize that not every business has the budget or capacity to create physical wellbeing apps and online resources. However, that doesn’t mean an employee's physical wellbeing needs to be put on the back burner. It can be embraced and encouraged by management in many small, but valuable, ways.


‘We have seen a variety of approaches from different clients; this varies from policies or encouragement from management around taking small breaks, using their lunch or breaks, to leave their workstations, and move more frequently during the day. It’s supporting a culture of wellbeing, there are small ways you can encourage your employees to be active.’

Erin Murphy-Sheriffs, Associate Vice President, Wellbeing Solutions, Aon


Whatever form it takes, when management actively shows support for employee wellbeing, it helps to create an environment where workers feel cared for and that their physical health is being taken seriously. By looking after this most basic need, employers can help their employees function with energy, reduce absence and boost productivity.


Taking a Holistic View of Wellbeing

For many employers, remote working has opened their eyes to the way in which their employees function as unique individuals with responsibilities as parents, caregivers and friends within their own families and communities.

As a result, responsible employers are taking a much more well-rounded approach to employee wellbeing. Rather than focusing on individual benefits and programs such as fruit in the office or on-site gym membership, organizations are providing a range of wellbeing resources that employees can use to take responsibility for their own health. Preventative measures, education and tools that provide a level of self-diagnostics can help employees steer themselves towards improved wellbeing.


‘When we think of inclusion and diversity which is a priority at Sanofi, it's not about providing one solution for all employees. It's about providing solutions that employees can individualize to their own personal needs.’

Sara Ahlfeld, Head of Benefits - Canada, Sanofi


Physical wellbeing is just one strand of wellbeing. Emotional, social, financial and career wellbeing are equally critical components. Organizations such as Sanofi that invest in a holistic view of wellbeing are the ones that will reap the benefits of a happy, healthy and productive workforce going forward.


‘We now look only at programs that can benefit the total wellbeing of employees. It’s not just about being healthy at work, it’s about being well in your whole life…including work. That makes for a workforce that is more engaged, happier, and productive.’

Sara Ahlfeld, Head of Benefits - Canada, Sanofi


Protecting Physical Health - The Next Steps for People Leaders:

  • Make physical wellbeing programs customized, inclusive and flexible.
  • Offer remote workers online resources or video assessments to improve ergonomics and ensure musculoskeletal health.
  • Small changes can make a big difference. Think beyond fitness apps and encourage a culture of wellbeing from business leaders.
  • Physical health is just one strand of employee wellbeing. Take a holistic view and provide a range of tools and resources for employees to use in the way that suits them best.


If you invest in the wellbeing of your people, they will invest in the wellbeing of your business.

[1] Goodhire’s State of Remote Work 2021

[2] Global Wellbeing Survey 2021

[3] Aon’s 2021 Global Medical Trend Rates Report