Workforce.com

Companies Make Wellness Work

February 1, 1995
You are what you eat. An apple a day keeps the doctor away. Early to bed, early to rise. If only an effective wellness program were as easy as dispensing pithy maxims and hoping for the best. Unfortunately, we all know that jumping jacks, pushups and a handful of fruit do not a healthy employee make.

The fact is, healthy employees are not born, but created. You don't just stumble upon large groups of well-conditioned, energetic, fit workers accidentally. Yet such groups do exist—at workplaces that have made a commitment to health.

And though these companies don't have identical cookie-cutter programs, they do share some basic characteristics. They focus on preventive health, rather than back-end solutions. They give the employees health programs that they'll actually use. And, most importantly, they have a culture that encourages a healthy lifestyle on all levels.

"A healthy company has top management support," says Harold Kahler Jr., president of Omaha, Nebraska-based Wellness Council of America (WELCOA). "Which means that health [promotion] is part of their strategic planning. They include it in their mission. They really walk the talk."

The non-profit WELCOA helps companies move toward this level of active promotion. While its mission is to promote healthier lifestyles for all Americans, it specifically focuses on worksite health promotion through a network of councils throughout the country. Currently, about 2,220 employers representing 1.8 million employees belong to the Wellness Council of America. This membership earns them the council's insight on a variety of workplace wellness issues.

Recently WELCOA announced America's Healthiest Companies, an honor it bestows on organizations that meet one of three levels of excellence: bronze, silver and gold.

But Kahler emphasizes that the America's Healthiest Companies program is more about process than prizes. Any company can enter, and WELCOA encourages all to do so—whether or not they have a sophisticated program. When a company submits itself to WELCOA's scrutiny, the journey toward workplace wellness begins. First comes a company health assessment by the Wellness Council of America. From there, the organization can set goals to work toward. Kahler says that the highest level of health orientation occurs when the organization's entire culture is adapted to health. "It's when a cultural change has taken place," he says. "Throughout the [company], both organizationally as well as individually with the employees, the norm is health. When people are trying to make changes, the organization as well as co-workers support them."

Yes, such organizations do exist. For instance, Sara Lee Knit Products, Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance and Chattanooga State Technical Community College were three organizations—among more than 100—winning WELCOA Well Workplace recognition in 1994. Their programs stand out not only as successful promoters of healthy mindsets, but as programs that have come a long way—and show no signs of slowing down.

Sara Lee Knit Products encourages employees to get fit any way they can.
It's no accident that the wellness program at Sara Lee Knit Products is a real crowd-pleaser. The Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based company encourages employee involvement in the program's design and continual evolution. Because constant feedback is so important to the program, manager of wellness Jean Green meets once a month with the company's HealthFit committee, composed of 15 employees from all different functions of the company. The committee and Greene examine hard data such as the cost of medical claims and health appraisals to ascertain the company's needs. Then comes the fun part: addressing these needs in activities and programs that employees will really use. "I guess if I have one thing to say about my program, it's that the employees own the program," says Greene. "Even though you have to have somebody to manage it, a lot of the participation comes from the employees."

One way in which employee feedback can be seen at work is in the program's fitness center. Besides workout and weight equipment, it also provides aerobics. To promote interest, when Greene moved the program in-house two years ago, she hired six instructors to teach a variety of classes at different times. "It's increased our participation threefold. We had to increase our classes," says Greene.

Despite offering after-work aerobics and occasional lunchtime classes, employees clamored for more, so the center began offering both sessions every day. "And during January, when everybody makes their New Year's resolutions, we actually run two classes back to back at lunchtime to get everyone off to an easy start," says Greene.

Making health accessible and fun is indeed the foundation of SL Knit Product's program. To ensure that employees are aware of the facility and the services offered, Greene, the wellness center's sole staff member, personally gives orientations to employees—and any spouses who are interested.

In addition, to provide a little bit of a hook for employees, Greene instituted an incentive program four years ago, and has been redesigning it ever since. In its current form, employees earn a certain number of points for attending exercise classes, going to HealthFit seminars, or recruiting co-workers into the program. Points may be turned in for prizes on a quarterly basis or accrued to the end of the year. The quality of the prize increases with the level of points—from water bottles to tennis balls to beach towels to shorts. For the highest level of points, the employee receives a $30 gift certificate to the company store. "Of all the things we've done, that's probably what they love the most," says Greene. "We saw our program grow 125% last year."

One group of employees meets every day at lunchtime to jog around the company's track. Walking, running and fitness challenges abound.

However, the incentives are more a perk to fitness than a necessary push. Because Greene is open to suggestions from all 1,000 employees, she doesn't have to guess at what kinds of activities will get them excited. Three years ago, an employee suggested the company hold a triathlon. It's now three years strong. Another time, a group of employees wanted to form a tennis league. A HealthFit committee member who was also an enthusiast took over the formation of the league, increasing involvement from 35 employees hitting the ball around after work to 125 competing in playoffs, women's and men's leagues. Another group of employees meets every day at lunchtime to jog the two-mile track around the building. Walking, running and fitness challenges abound.

And because SL Knit Products takes a holistic approach to health, the wellness center also addresses employees' mental and emotional health needs. When a group of women wanted to know how to better protect themselves, Greene signed off on a six-week self-defense program. Similar issues to be addressed in '95 include self-esteem, smoking cessation and stress management.

Greene says a big key to her program is keeping the employees actively engaged. "When I started here six years ago, we had a small room downstairs with a tiny bit of equipment in it that about five people in the building were using. That's what happens if you don't have ongoing programs—most people are not that self-motivated."

But with an upbeat agenda and an open-minded, flexible format, the wellness program at Sara Lee Knit Products is providing the motivation.

Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. is healthy to the core.
Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance (NML) makes its business being healthy, so responsible lifestyle decisions come more naturally. "Being a life insurance company, we have long focused on the health and well-being of our employees—as well as our policy owners," says Renee Dziekan, administrator of health services.

The commitment to employee health dates back to more than 20 years ago, when the Milwaukee-based company began offering reimbursements on YMCA memberships. Soon after, an old employee gym gave way to a small fitness center. In 1990, as the company moved to a new building, an updated fitness center was incorporated into space needs. Open to NML's 3,300 employees 24 hours a day, the center offers aerobic exercise as well as weight training and the expertise of a part-time fitness consultant. Dziekan says the center is used by almost half the employee population; although for employees who want a little variety, the company still offers reimbursements on YMCA memberships.

"In order to provide our employees with some positive health choices, we offer a variety of programs and facilities and services," says Dziekan. Medical screening programs make up an important part of these services. Not only does NML provide testing for blood pressure and cholesterol, it also offers ergonomic assessments, weight reduction programs, smoking cessation and stress management and—to demonstrate its commitment—flextime arrangements to employees if they choose to attend these seminars.

Every good program is a result of careful planning, and NML's is no exception. For 1995, the WELCOA Gold Recognition winner is focusing on three major health-care issues:

  1. Practicing prevention:
    Designed to cover the gamut, from eating smart to maintaining healthy relationships to getting regular examinations.
  2. Medical benefits:
    NML will educate employees on the health-care system and insurance benefits, including the employee assistance program.
  3. Becoming a partner with your medical provider:
    Designed to inform employees on obtaining cost-effective medical care, choosing a physician and working actively toward health with that physician.

Dziekan says that despite all the programs and services and initiatives the health services department has set up, it's the company itself of which she is the most proud. "People who are trying to make healthy lifestyle choices need a lot of support, and we support with a very warm, caring environment at NML. It really is a hallmark of our corporate culture. The work environment provides the human connection and social support needed to make lifestyle changes."

A community college learns how to be healthy.
Say the phrase "teachers' lounge," and most people think smoke breaks, coffee breaks and donut breaks. Say the same phrase at Chattanooga State Technical Community College and you'll get quite a different response, thanks to an aggressive wellness program that's been whipping faculty and staff into shape over the past four years.

So health-minded is the college now that it has set its commitment to fitness in stone. "The wellness initiative has been incorporated into the mission statement, which is very important," says Tom Crum, wellness director.

But it wasn't always such a fitness-friendly campus. Beginning in 1991, when the college participated in an organizational health assessment with WELCOA, it has actively molded the environment into one that respected wellness. Such was its fervor for change that the company received a bronze Healthy Company recognition from WELCOA in 1993; a silver in 1994.

Now the college is going for the gold, which will require an entire mindset change throughout the campus. "I'm trying to work with the many groups to really integrate wellness all over campus," says Crum. "If the environment is unsupportive, studies have shown there's an 80% failure rate for individuals who are attempting lifestyle changes."

Crum offers a specific example of how a health program can be rendered ineffective if not integrated: If a person is trying to change his or her eating habits, yet the wellness message has not reached the cafeteria staff, not enough healthful food may be available, and the employee will lack the necessary support. However, he says, this is no longer the case on campus. Now when the college holds meetings, fruits and veggies are replacing the once-ubiquitous honey buns and bear claws.

Say "teachers' lounge" and most people think smoke breaks, coffee and donut breaks. Not at Chattanooga State Technical Community College.

In addition, the wellness newsletter (which the wellness department has distributed to the college's 400 employees religiously for the past 31 months) contains a recipe of the month, which helps emphasize that healthful food can be tasty too. Crum says this is an important message for his part of the country: "The Southeast is not exactly a hotbed of wellness activity."

So now, a visit to the Chattanooga campus may provide glimpses of professors shooting hoops with students in intramural leagues, department heads hashing out ideas on a walk along the nearby Tennessee River, or a group of staffers heading out on an "adventure weekend," replete with whitewater rafting, bicycling and canoeing.

"The culture of this organization is really changing," says Crum.

So what benefits do healthy companies receive? Just ask the healthy companies. "First, there are tangible benefits such as improved productivity and reduced worker's comp rates; but also intangibles like improved employee morale and low turnover rates," says Dziekan.

Greene notices that at her company "employees have more energy, they're more focused."

Adds Crum: "People are bouncing into work, they're really interested in their jobs."

One last maxim may sum it all up: "Just do it."

Personnel Journal, February 1995, Vol. 74,, No. 2, pp. 63-66.