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Walmart homes in on staff's wellness

by Serenah McKay | February 2, 2021 at 2:12 a.m.

Walmart Inc. has extended a program to support employees' well-being into its Canadian unit in hopes of combating pandemic-related stress.

A year into the covid-19 pandemic, the stress of social isolation along with health and financial uncertainties continue to affect the mental and physical health of millions, experts say. And frontline workers such as those who serve the public in grocery retail are among the most vulnerable.

In a Kaiser Family Foundation poll in July, 53% of adults said worry and stress about the pandemic had harmed their mental and physical health, compared with 32% in March. Many of those polled listed such specific responses as difficulty sleeping or eating; increased alcohol consumption; and worsening of chronic health conditions.

To help its close to 100,000 workers cope, Walmart Canada said recently that it is working with Thrive Global, a behavior change technology firm founded by Arianna Huffington. Thrive's resources are available to all employees, from executives and managers to store workers.

Huffington and Nabeela Ixtabalan, Walmart Canada's executive vice president of people and corporate affairs, introduced the Thrive Wellbeing Journey to company personnel, Walmart Canada said in a news release.

The program offers tips and tools for dealing with stress, the company said. It also gives Walmart employees access to an app called Thrive ZP, which creates a community for participants to support one another and provides incentives to encourage them to build healthier habits.

Thrive ZP is designed to help users focus on small, daily challenges rather than big, long-term outcomes, Walmart Canada said. The app addresses the areas of fitness, food, family, money, sleep and gratitude with tips and motivation to make better choices.

Employees featured on Walmart's website report making such simple changes as taking daily walks, practicing mindfulness or meditation, and eating out less often. They say these small steps have helped mitigate their stress, depression and anxiety.

"The pandemic has brought a magnifying glass to the mental health crisis," Ixtabalan said. "Our goal is to evolve the narrative and experience of workplace well-being and contribute to a societal movement that changes the expectations and norms for everyone."

Huffington, chief executive officer of Thrive Global, said the pandemic represents "an unprecedented opportunity to redefine how we work."

Walmart Canada's leaders, Huffington said, believe that "now more than ever, it is imperative to prioritize the mental health and well-being of their associates, who have been stepping forward and providing a critical lifeline to their communities this year."

Thrive ZP didn't start with Canada, though. The Bentonville-based retailer's U.S. division said in September that it created Thrive ZP earlier in the year when it merged its existing program, ZP Challenge, with Thrive.

Walmart employs about 1.5 million workers in the U.S.

Delivering corporate wellness programs through an app makes sense when a major portion of the workforce is now working from home, experts say.

Company wellness programs can encourage high levels of participation even when employees are working from home, according to a global corporate wellness report published in September by ResearchAndMarkets.com.

"It still remains important that employees are able to access and continue utilizing workplace wellness programs," the report said. "For instance, wellness programs today are offering access to online and fitness apps so employees can exercise while working from home in isolation."

Apps also help workers by giving them an online place in which to form small groups, discuss their health and fitness goals or even engage in virtual fitness challenges, according to the report.

Peter Chen, a psychology professor at Auburn University and editor of the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, said in an email Monday that he was not familiar with Walmart's Thrive ZP initiative, but said wellness programs in general need to meet several criteria to ensure their sustainability.

First, he said, they need to be part of daily operations and require buy-in from middle management and supervisors as well as employees.

Managers and supervisors also have to be role models, Chen said.

"They have to participate in the program and communicate the importance of wellness to workers regularly," Chen said. "It is how a wellness culture is created."

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