‘We Could Have Lost Half Our Workforce’: How Purolator Curbed Employee Attrition

The courier service worked with the Cleveland Clinic Canada to build an employee-facing program that put mental health first
(Illustration: Getty)

Employee turnover is an expensive business. In 2022, it cost the average Canadian employer $41,000 to rehire and retrain a worker replacing one who’d left. (In 10 per cent of cases, those expenses, which also factor in lost productivity, top $100,000.) 

According to a 2022 Randstad survey, 36 per cent of blue collar workers and 21 per cent of white collar workers had changed employers in the last 12 months. While motivations vary—higher salary, better benefits, more flexibility—the message is clear: In today’s tight labour market employers need to be proactive about tackling employee attrition, stat. 

Employee retention has been on Purolator’s radar since before the pandemic. In 2019, the 63-year-old Canadian courier was going through what president and CEO John Ferguson calls “a period of significant change.” The growth of e-commerce meant a major shift for a company that had mainly done business-to-business delivery. To keep up with consumer demand, they were re-training existing employees, and hired 3,000 new ones over three years, bringing the workforce up to 15,000 across Canada.

Related: Feeling Stressed? Here’s How to Take a Mental Health Leave From Work

Ferguson realized Purolator was increasingly becoming a “people-focussed” business, where despite automation and technology, the health of the company was directly tied to the wellbeing of the humans who got a package from A to B. “How you treat people can define you as a company. It can differentiate you and build long-term success,” says Ferguson, who saw investing in employee wellbeing initiatives as a proactive step, rather than a reaction to any issues attracting and retaining workers. 

So Purolator tapped health-care provider Cleveland Clinic Canada in 2019 to build a health and safety program with a greater focus on employee support. Combining its own research on creating a psychologically safe work environment with employee feedback—including surveys sent out to workers and their families—Cleveland Clinic’s Dr. Shaan Chugh worked to create an attrition strategy that took into account mental, physical and social wellness. 

A key part of this was an increased focus on mental wellbeing. For instance, while the courier industry as a whole tends to focus on supporting physical wellness due to the demanding nature of many roles, Purolator added more mental health support to its benefits program when they recognized it was an employee need, increasing annual limits for these services by at least 100 per cent across all plans. 

Related: How to Encourage Employees to Return to the Office

The company also added virtual therapy as an option, and widened the list of practitioners covered by benefits to social workers and counselors. As a result, employee use of these mental health resources went up 150 per cent between 2020 and 2022. “When people are healthy and happy, they’re more committed and dedicated to their work on a day-to-day basis,” says Dr. Chugh.

When the pandemic hit, the systems they’d put in place helped Purolator—whose workforce were designated frontline workers—and enabled the company to respond quickly to the needs of its staff, whether that was rolling out access to virtual health care and online courses teaching mental health management strategies, or sending “meditation trucks” out to delivery depots that enabled workers to spend ten minutes chatting to an expert about mindfulness. 

“If we had not done this, and just said, ‘We don’t care what you’re going through, you’ve got a job to do,’ we could have lost half our workforce”

Post pandemic, the program that came to be known as “Purolator Health” continues to evolve. One of the newest things Purolator has introduced is the Mood Insights mobile app, which asks drivers to check in on how they’re feeling throughout their day. Using AI-based predictive mood tracking, this anonymized data is then shared with team leaders to help them recognize any emerging issues and tackle them with the necessary support. (There’s a direct link between driver stress and workplace accidents, so it’s thought this will boost employee physical safety too.) Piloted in Calgary and Windsor, Ont., it will be rolled out across the 5,000 driver fleet this year. 

The numbers validated their approach: In a time period characterized by the Great Resignation—when employees were more open to leaving roles, between 2021 and 2022, Purolator saw a 12 per cent reduction in attrition. “We did so much trying to put our arms around our people, and it really did insulate us,” Ferguson says. “If we had not done this, and just said, ‘We don’t care what you’re going through, you’ve got a job to do,’ we could have lost half our workforce.” 

CB Staff
CB Staff