Healthy Employees, Healthy Company

Expanding benefits and wellness offerings -- and rolling out benefits in unconventional ways when necessary -- was a recurring theme at HRE's fifth annual Health & Benefits Leadership Conference.

Monday, June 5, 2017
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Laura Putnam kicked off Human Resource Executive®'s 2017 Health & Benefits Leadership Conference, held April 19 through 21 at the Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, with an anecdote that should resonate with HR and benefits professionals everywhere.

Putnam, the CEO and founder of San Francisco-based wellness provider Motion Infusion, recalled a recent email she received from an HR leader who had attended one of Putnam's wellness training workshops.

"She was really excited to talk with the C-suite at her company about starting a new wellness program," said Putnam, "and she wanted some resources to help carry out this new initiative."

So Putnam directed her toward a handful of wellness-related books as well as some other tools with which to arm herself when she made her case to the organization's leadership.

The HR leader's presentation, however, didn't go over as well as she had hoped it would.

Although she was prepared with data and anecdotal evidence to support her argument, the company's executives walked away unconvinced that a new wellness initiative would improve the bottom line.

Putnam's opening presentation, "Going Stealth: How Not Calling It 'Wellness' Can Be Your Secret Weapon," focused on how "sneaking wellness initiatives into non-wellness related programs" can help other HR leaders avoid a similar fate.

Historically, the "typical protocol" regarding wellness programs, said Putnam, has been to assess employee health needs, solicit feedback from the workforce and then implement some form of wellness program in response -- a smoking-cessation program or walking challenge, for example.

Many organizations also offer financial or other incentives in an effort to boost participation in wellness programs, "but money has its limits," said Putnam. "Rewards motivate people to get the reward, but not necessarily to sustain the activities that earned them that prize."

Putnam suggested that the best way to introduce a wellness program might be by bringing it into the organization via a Trojan horse of sorts.

For example, Putnam recalled being brought in to an organization to help weave a wellness component into the client company's larger, broader "work-performance-improvement program."

"The amazing, ironic thing to me was that there was so much wellness already packed into this work-performance program," she said.

For instance, the program already entailed morning stretches, standing meetings and the implementation of a buddy system designed to encourage employees to support each other in their efforts to, say, eat healthier.

"That," said Putnam, "is how you sneak wellness into workplace programs that the C-suite views as being more bottom-line oriented."

Encouraging Healthy Behavior

Creating a culture of health -- whether it's done out in the open or on the sly -- indeed presents challenges. Another HBLC session offered ways to overcome these hurdles.

A panel discussion, led by Mim Senft, president and CEO of Motivity Partnerships Inc., continued on Putnam's theme that trying to "change" employee habits or behaviors is a difficult --  and often downright futile -- undertaking. Rather, the panel -- which included HR leaders from The Breakers, Delta Air Lines Inc., National Van Lines and Owens Corning --  focused on how they've helped create an environment in which employees are less stressed at work, which, in turn, can contribute to better overall employee health and the ability to make better health-related decisions.

At Owens Corning, the philosophy behind the organization's wellness efforts is simple, said Gale Tedhams, director of sustainability at the Toledo, Ohio-headquartered developer and producer of insulation, roofing and fiberglass composites.

"If the company is to flourish, we need employees to flourish," she said.

As far back as 2001, Tedhams said, the company began concentrating more closely on having zero work-related injuries.

"We haven't quite gotten there, but we've gotten awfully close," she said, adding that Owens Corning has more recently made a similar commitment to measuring and mitigating the impact of fatigue on its employees, which affects safety as well as workers' overall well-being.

"We've started to do fatigue risk management," she said, noting that the company has conducted employee surveys that revealed that sleep and stress were "big issues" among its roughly 15,000 employees, "not so much in terms of increased absenteeism, but in presenteeism.

"We've taken a big step back," she continued, "and asked ourselves how we can create a work environment not in which we change people, but an environment that encourages employees to make good health decisions."

Maureen Beal, CEO and chairman at National Van Lines, shared her belief that taking care of employees is vital if you expect them to take care of themselves.

For example, the company sends employees marking their 30th anniversary with the company -- along with their spouses -- on an all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii.

"When I tell people [outside the organization] that we do this, they're amazed," said Beal. "But it's really a simple thing to do."

Such rewards "make workers happier, which leads to better, healthier workers," added Senft, who urged the HR professionals on hand to "learn the different 'languages' throughout the organization."

In other words, she said, HR and benefit leaders need to find out what will encourage workers in different parts of the organization to engage in and maintain healthy behaviors, she said. "For wellness programs to work, you need all of these different employees and departments on your side."

The Journey to Better Wellness

In 2008, the County of Los Angeles badly needed to inspire its employees to adopt healthier behaviors. At the time, the healthcare data at the county was "alarming," according to Mary Gilmore.

Gilmore, principal analyst in the county's HR department, told those attending a breakout session that the county's workforce was overweight and obese (75.8 percent), and suffered from diabetes (7.2 percent) and high-blood pressure (13.8 percent).

The data served as "a huge wake-up call," explained co-presenter Lisa Garrett, director of personnel for the county, which today employs 108,000 people. "We knew we had to do something to improve the health of not just our employees and their families, but also our communities."

In response, the county set out on what it called its "Journey to Better Wellness."

As a first step, the HR team was able to obtain buy-in from the county's senior leadership and unions.

Of course, it didn't help that the county was short on financial resources as far as wellness was concerned. "The county has a $30 billion dollar budget," explained Gilmore. "But do you think any of it goes to wellness?"

This meant that if HR was going to successfully address wellness, it was going to have seek help from its key healthcare partners, such as Kaiser Permanente, Anthem, UnitedHealthcare and Cigna.

Gilmore and her team brought these entities (many of which were competitors) together to brainstorm possible solutions and seek out their support in implementing them.

The county's approach was multi-faceted, Gilmore explained. It featured a Countywide Fitness Challenge, including a series of fitness events at local parks and beaches; an interagency "Greatest Loser" competition; and onsite lunch and learns (including 16 seminars over a 12 month period).

Gilmore said the plan called for meeting people where they live and work, through additional wellness fairs, monthly wellness webinars, onsite fitness classes, onsite walking clubs, and more. (Financial wellness was also part of the overall strategy.)

As a result of these efforts and others, she said, the county experienced, between 2008 and 2015, declines in overweight and obesity levels (for both adults and children), as well as high-blood pressure and borderline-to-high cholesterol levels. (Of the areas tracked, only diabetes experienced a small increase over that period.)

Aligning Benefits

The need to shape your benefits strategy around the specific needs of employees was a recurring theme at this year's HBLC event. This idea was certainly at the heart of a breakout session titled "Driving Benefit Plan Design Through Your Employee Value Proposition," featuring Willis Towers Watson Managing Director John Bremen and Ingram Micro Executive Vice President of Human Resources Scott Sherman.

Breman, who works out of Willis Towers Watson's Chicago office, stressed the importance of differentiating the employee experience for different worker demographics. "We need to get each employee to think that this is really their company," he said.

Most programs in place today have been created by baby boomers for baby boomers,  Breman explained. But while Gen Xers may have accepted these boomer-developed programs, Gen Yers are rebelling against them.

The challenge for employers, then, is create a set of benefits and total rewards that are aligned with an employee value proposition.

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"It's no longer a situation of one size fits all," he said.

In designing benefits, he said, "We have to start taking into account the consumer mind-set of employees."

Breman pointed to data from a 2014 Willis Towers Watson study that showed a hefty disconnect between what employees expect and what they are receiving. The research found that 70 percent of employees believe that their organization should understand them to the same degree that employees are expected to understand external customers, but only 43 percent of them reported having an employer that actually understands them in this way.

Sherman followed Breman's presentation by detailing what Irvine, Calif.-based Ingram Micro did to improve the tech distributor's relationship with its employees.

Ingram Micro's benefits team had identified that a significant percentage of its employees were "over-insuring," picking more expensive "metallic" healthcare options (with low to no deductibles) than was warranted.

HR's goal was to increase employees' take-home pay "by improving the education and selection process," he said.

To that end, Ingram gave employees tools for estimating the total cost of coverage during the selection process so they could make decisions that were better suited to their needs.

The result: Employees, he said, now have more money in their paychecks and say they feel "confident" they are now in the right plan, a far cry from how things were prior to the program's launch.

Beyond Physical Health

As many employers have learned in recent years, worries over the amount of money in their bank accounts can significantly affect employees' health and job performance; worries that can even lead to physical issues, or exacerbate existing ones.

Meredith Covington, project director of the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St. Louis, examined this impact in "Financial Wellness Programs: Who Wants to Offer Them, Participate in Them, and How to Select the Right Type for Your Workforce."

Covington provided some recent data that underscore the financial state of the average U.S. worker, two-thirds of whom reported in 2012 that they live paycheck to paycheck. (In 2015, the Federal Reserve found that less than half of U.S. employers could cover an unanticipated expense of $400 or more.)

In response, organizations such as Ross Stores have adopted a more comprehensive approach to employee wellness that includes promoting financial fitness as well.

Joining Covington on stage was Ed Bray, director of benefits at the Dublin, Calif.-based retailer. He outlined the key components of the financial wellness program that Ross introduced in 2016, with help from the New York-headquartered consultancy Mercer.

In designing the program, personalization would be critical in a company such as Ross, said Bray. The organization is home to five generations of workers -- silent, baby boomers, generation X, millennials and generation Z -- but roughly 48,000 of its more than 81,000 employees are of Gen Y or Gen Z age.

Each generation has preferred ways of receiving information, and seeks different type of financial counsel, said Bray.

In response to employee feedback, Ross launched financial wellness initiatives geared toward each of these groups, while making financial counseling and other tools available to all employees via the company's intranet as well as mobile apps.

Such resources could be invaluable to employees -- not to mention effective engagement and retention tools for employers -- but are rendered virtually useless if not properly communicated to the workforce, said Jennifer Benz, during the general session, "The ROI of Benefits Communication."

For example, "an organization might have great benefits, but only communicates them to employees during open enrollment," said Benz, CEO and founder of Benz Communications, and HBLC 2017 program advisor. "Then you end up with outdated benefits information sitting on a company intranet, not really helping anyone."

Benz offered examples of organizations she's worked with to make such information and resources readily available to employees, and tailored to their particular needs.

At Intuit, for instance, "we put targeted content right on the home page" of the Mountain View, Calif.-based business and financial company's intranet, based on feedback from employees saying they wished to access benefits information on an a la carte basis.

"Employees basically said, 'Just tell me what's important to me.' "

Funds allotted for benefits communication can be less than 1 percent of your total budget, but a failure to communicate effectively and often can be costly, said Benz.


The 2018 HRE's Health & Benefits Leadership Conference will be held April 4 through 6 at the Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. Visit for more details.


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