Ante Up for Wellness

Promoting healthy lifestyles for employees requires leadership from HR—and other executives.

By Sandra Price Feb 1, 2012
February Cover

Getting fit is challenging. Staying fit and being well is a lifelong endeavor. At Sprint Nextel, wellness matters. We want our employees to live strong, healthy lives and to be their best at work, too. This benefits our customers and helps us manage costs. Talking about wellness is one thing. Leading the way is quite another. Sprint executives have decided to lead by example, and it's making a difference.

How did we begin? Very personally. I shared one of my family's health challenges with employees in an employee wellness newsletter. When I asked my peers on the executive team to do likewise, many expressed a willingness to join in leadership of the wellness initiative. Sometimes, we HR professionals assume that people aren't willing, when in reality we just have to ask. Members of the management team began coming up with ideas on their own, and the energy soon moved through the organization.

Health Issues: In the Open

Every month, we publish the Stay Healthy! e-newsletter for Sprint employees and their dependents. Each newsletter addresses a health topic that has personal significance to one of our executives and includes tips to help employees prevent and address health conditions. For example, because February is American Heart Month, we take the opportunity to encourage employees and their families to become familiar with ways to lower their risks for heart disease.

Because heart health has special meaning to my family, last year I volunteered to be the featured executive. I let employees know that my sister has arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia, a chronic heart disease that requires a defibrillator to protect her. I told them that this disease runs in families so, after her diagnosis, I began to reduce my risk factors. It became important to "know my numbers," including blood pressure, body mass index and cholesterol. I had some simple, painless tests done to establish a base line and give my doctor the information she needs to make sure that we catch potential changes in my readings. I wrote about how I was working hard to change my habits by eating more fruits and vegetables and walking more.

My colleagues also volunteered to share their stories. For example:

  • Bill White, senior vice president of corporate communications, wrote about how exercise helps him manage stress, underscoring that unhealthy levels of stress can lead to physical and mental health conditions, including obesity, anxiety and depression.
  • Joe Mandacina, vice president of corporate communications, bravely told the story of his testicular cancer diagnosis 20 years ago and how early diagnosis saved his life. He reminded us of the necessity of getting annual physical exams and how dietary choices can affect cancer risk.
  • Peter Campbell, senior vice president of information technology, let us know that diabetes killed his mother and that he, too, had been diagnosed with diabetes. He was a smoker, he was overweight, and he was tired. He decided to get serious about making changes. With the support of his doctor, wife and colleagues, Peter began eating healthy meals, increased his activity level and lost 40 pounds. These anecdotes are powerful and give us the means to introduce employees to wellness resources that they might not otherwise take the time to learn about—and use.

Learning about protecting and improving personal health are important. Actually making changes is even more important.

Companywide Events

Our executives put on their sneakers last spring and, with the support of hundreds of managers and employee team leaders, got thousands of employees out of their chairs. Sprint partnered with ShapeUp, a provider of wellness solutions headquartered in Providence, R.I., to bring employees the 12-week Sprint Get Fit Challenge. Sales executives Jaime Jones, senior vice president of consumer sales, and Judy Train, vice president of small-business sales, served as co-sponsors of the initiative. Employees formed teams of up to 11 members from coast to coast to participate and compete in three categories: exercise minutes, pedometer steps and weight loss.

Participants logged their results at least once a week. Some executives chose to lead teams, and some simply became team members. I was a team member along with the presidents of our employee resource groups. Our team's captain sent us encouraging notes to let us know how we were doing relative to our goal of 10,000 steps per day. I was shocked to learn that on most days, despite being busy at work, my pedometer registered only about 3,000 steps. Other employees had similar "aha" moments. Executives and team leaders began to conduct voluntary group walks and to show up for exercise sessions in call centers, retail stores and offices throughout the country. Kansas City's information technology organization went the distance, working with real estate and corporate security to plan a 24-hour walk around our headquarters' campus. Employees and leaders took shifts and walked together day and night to show their support for wellness.

The Get Fit Challenge exceeded expectations: More than 14,000 employees participated, representing 35 percent of our workforce. And, the lost weight added up to more than 41,000 pounds.

"I was extremely overweight [and] suffered from high blood pressure and high cholesterol," says John Alexander, IT account manager. "I decided to make a change for the better for myself and my family. And to date I've lost 70 pounds."

Employees recorded their weight loss, steps taken and minutes exercised via an online tool. Sprint officials received only aggregate data about weight loss, and individual weights were not displayed in the tool.

We expect the long-term benefits of the Get Fit Challenge to save Sprint more than $1.1 million per year as a result of healthier lifestyles and changed behaviors that ultimately will lead to fewer medical claims. We know that to maintain these behavior changes requires reinforcement and encouragement. We will build on the momentum by offering ongoing, team-based activities and individual opportunities and resources. In a 2007 study of a program similar to the Get Fit Challenge, ShapeUp found that participants who completed the program maintained 76 percent of their initial weight loss after six months.

In addition to the friendly wellness competition inside the company, employees participated in community wellness activities. For example, employees turned out to participate in the 32nd annual Kansas City Corporate Challenge, an Olympics-like event that allows Kansas City-area corporations to engage in "healthy" competition with each other through sports.

Sprint Nextel

Services: Offers wireless and wireline communications services to consumers, businesses and government users.

Ownership: Publicly held (NYSE: S).

Top executives: Dan Hesse, chief executive officer; Sandra Price, senior vice president of human resources.

Employees: Approximately 40,000.

2010 revenue: $32.56 billion.

Locations: 1,153 ZIP codes covering locations within 46 of the United States, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands; headquarters in Overland Park, Kan.


Stan Sword, vice president of total rewards, and Danny Bowman, president of Sprint Integrated Solutions, rallied employees and retirees to participate. The Corporate Challenge provided another opportunity to talk about wellness and to encourage employees to visit the Sprint campus fitness center. In fact, we waived the initiation fee for Corporate Challenge participants who wished to become fitness center members. Employees who chose not to formally compete in the citywide challenge could still participate. Executive hosts at the Sprint tent encouraged everyone to enter a one-mile walk to show support for our "athletes."

The movement to promote healthy lifestyles spread quickly. Once managers and directors started to see senior executives engaging with employees about issues such as controlling high blood pressure, reducing cholesterol, losing weight and smoking cessation, they too became involved. Sprint's corporate communication team started to tell stories about what was happening in different pockets of the organization. Healthy snacks began appearing at team gatherings, rather than sweets. A 2011 United Way breakfast sported a healthy menu.

Whereas wellness is becoming an attribute of the culture at Sprint, we understand that employee health matters are personal. We want our employees and their families to use health and wellness services with the knowledge that their health information and questions are exactly that—their information.

Individual Coaching

To achieve the mutual goals of improving employee wellness while maintaining privacy, we created Sprint Alive!, offered at no cost to employees. We provide the program through OptumHealth, headquartered in Golden Valley, Minn. OptumHealth develops health management services that help people get healthy, stay healthy or manage health conditions. Trained nurse advocates are available 24 hours a day via telephone and online to help identify health needs, make referrals and close potential gaps in care. In 2011, more than 2,800 employees and their dependents received such assistance and many more thousands used online resources. The aggregate health care cost savings from Sprint Alive! help us to minimize health care premium increases. Sprint Alive! is projected to reduce Sprint total health care costs by $1.3 million annually.

These programs are designed to help employees set and meet goals to improve their health, beginning with completion of a health assessment. The programs offered aren't intended to take the place of a doctor's care, but to complement and reinforce physicians' instructions while helping employees with routine illness or medical questions. Program support includes cholesterol and diabetes management, smoking cessation, stress management, weight loss, and nutrition and exercise. Participation is confidential, as is information shared with a nurse advocate or wellness coach. We want participation to be rewarding. In addition to becoming healthy, employees who engage in Sprint Alive! earn cash-equivalent prizes of their choice. And, long-term condition assistance is designed to work in conjunction with doctors and insurance providers to encourage confidential adherence to treatment plans. Conditions may include asthma, cancer, congestive heart failure, and kidney or pulmonary disease.

We have good wellness momentum. However, we have more to do to help employees take responsibility for their personal health and well-being. In 2012, employees have access to a personal online tool that helps them understand and compare their health care costs based on their needs, choices and Sprint's insurance benefits. Employees who complete a voluntary confidential health care assessment and who live in a tobacco-free household qualify for reduced medical plan premiums. We continue to offer health savings accounts.

Employee education is an ongoing opportunity. It is essential that we equip our employees to be informed consumers of health care and to make good choices. I am reminded every day that being an executive leader and role model means more than being a coach and mentor and more than consistently delivering results. If we want our employees to be healthy and to make good choices, executives must do the same. We can make a significant difference in the wellness of our employees with our words and actions. And, along the way, we might just find that we've become a little healthier, too.

The author is senior vice president of human resources for Sprint and based in Overland Park, Kan.


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