Radio-Activity: Wellness Initiatives at NPR

Jeff Perkins of National Public Radio talks about health and wellness initiatives at its new headquarters.

By Kathy Gurchiek Jan 1, 2014
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November CoverAs chief people officer of National Public Radio (NPR), Jeff Perkins was a familiar face at the spin class held twice a week in the organization’s HR department. That activity reflects NPR’s focus on health and wellness at its new Washington, D.C., headquarters, where amenities include:

A wellness center with two examination rooms and a pharmacy managed by Cigna, NPR’s primary medical plan carrier, where employees can receive immunizations and assistance in managing chronic conditions.

A fitness center, open 24 hours a day and staffed 40 hours a week, that eligible employees may join.

A café operated by Guckenheimer Enterprises Inc. and staffed by an onsite chef.

A farmers market Guckenheimer operates for three hours every Tuesday in the café, where employees can buy produce at wholesale prices.

Wellness Wednesdays in the café, where monthly health-related programs such as "Intro to Cardio," breast cancer awareness and cholesterol education are promoted.

Scheduled and unscheduled employee stretch breaks throughout the day.

A room for commuting employees to park theirbicycles.

Perkins, who left NPR in October 2013 to become vice president of human resources at Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX, offered an overview of the radio network’s commitment to wellness prior to his departure.

NPR had a fitness center and cafeteria in its old facility. Did a wellness culture already exist, or did it emerge when the new building opened in April?

The old building had a gym outfitted with employees’ castoff equipment, and the cafeteria food was cooked offsite and warmed up in a microwave. We used the new facility as an opportunity to begin a cultural change toward wellness, which ties in with caring about employees. We wanted to make it convenient for them to get medical care. An employee who used to arrive late or leave early to get allergy shots, for example, now can have that done at NPR. The wellness center comes at no cost to NPR and is free to employees, thanks to a partnership with Cigna.

Not all organizations have a building with NPR’s amenities. What can an organization—and HR—do to create a wellness culture?

Don’t wait. Don’t try to do too much. Start small; you have to start somewhere. Have a focus; everything NPR does in setting HR goals revolves around wellness, engagement and recognition.

Plan on resistance—there’s resistance with any change. Deal with it by listening to and involving employees. Listening is important. We’re constantly getting feedback. A committee of employees researched and proposed the food vendor we use. And we paid attention when people asked that we add sushi to the menu. It sells out every time we serve it.

Messaging is important. The gym at the old building was free, so there was some resistance to a membership fee. That changed when employees learned that, for $11 per pay period, they had access to new equipment, instructor-led classes and customized programs. The fee also sends a message that wellness is a shared responsibility. Several executive team members belong to the fitness center, use it regularly and encourage others to participate in fitness center programs.

Tell us about NPR’s wellness training program for managers.

NPR reinforces its wellness messaging through training and recognition. Last year, we designed and introduced a tailored one-day interactive program, "Building Healthy Teams," to provide managers with tools and training to build a common approach to wellness at NPR. One focus of the program is how to create an individual action plan to help improve the health of team members. Employees or teams who promote a healthy lifestyle at work and assist others with work/life balance can be recognized and rewarded through NPR’s "Success Awards" program. For example, managers have been nominated for leading their teams in workouts during the day and for making it easy for staff to use flexible work arrangements.

What data does NPR collect to support its initiative?

HR conducts employee surveys—most recently, a 70-question survey. NPR has about 750 employees. Their average age is 46, and they’re concerned about their health. In the survey, employees told us that stress was off the charts. They felt they were working too many hours and putting in too much overtime, and that achieving work/life balance was difficult. The senior management team is working with staff to address those concerns. They’re reviewing changes and improvements that can be made. We’re also convening a working group of staff from across the company to partner with HR in brainstorming ways to support improvements.

And each year NPR looks at its medical claims. A conservative estimate from Cigna shows that we will save around $390,000 over the next three years in claims cost reduction, avoiding lost work time and through increased use of generic drugs.

What do you do when employees circumvent wellness efforts, as when some employees started an underground candy bar market because they didn’t like the healthier options in the vending machines?

We increased the selection in our vending machines. The café also offers fresh-baked sweets, and we had an ice cream bar last summer. Our overall goal is to make healthy choices readily available and convenient. That said, we all need indulgences.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.

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