Advocates, Facebook, Fresh Fruit Fridays Promote Wellness at Costco

By Kathy Gurchiek Sep 21, 2010

A successful wellness program depends, in part, on the employer taking a good look at the organization and creating a program that is unique to its setting.

That was the message from Annie Casey, health and wellness manager at Costco Wholesale, during a Sept. 15, 2010, session on “Innovations and Trends in Employer Wellness Solutions” at a National Business Group on Health conference in Washington, D.C.

Costco used the competitive spirit among regional stores, the high level of autonomy its managers have, a high level of employee trust and loyalty and the company’s no-frills business model as it set out to create a culture of health at its more than 400 U.S. stores.

Senior management sought volunteers to serve as wellness advocates at each store to devote two to five hours weekly to roll out initiatives such as biometric screenings and to participate in a training call with Casey. They use a company web-based tool kit to promote healthy living through newsletters, bulletin boards, gym discount programs, healthy food promotions, recipes, and challenges and events.

Events have included a 12-week weight loss and muscle-building regimen among the more than 60 employees at the Bellingham, Wash., store. The challenge was the pilot program for Costco’s Live Healthy Weigh-to-Go initiative. Participants received monthly consultations with an on-site exercise physiologist, basic dietary information and an exercise program, according to one of its newsletters.

While there were no monetary incentives, the store pledged to donate merchandise to a local food bank equaling the total pounds of muscle that participants gained. Participants added 185 pounds of muscle; the biggest winner was a man who lost 9.5 percent body fat and gained 11 pounds of muscle.

In the program’s first year, biometric screenings were performed at 370 Costco locations. Results were compiled anonymously and sent to stores.This helped to inform management and the wellness advocates as to what initiatives were needed to focus on health issues at their store. A high stress level on the report card, for example, resulted in promoting six free employee counseling sessions, Casey said.

Costco keyed off the competitive spirit among its stores by creating two Live Healthy designations, which earned bragging rights but no monetary rewards.

Winners of the Live Healthy designation must:

  • Have a wellness advocate who participates in at least three training calls.
  • Sponsor three health and wellness events or challenges.
  • Host a biometric screening.
  • Participate in the company’s Healthy Vending Machine Program.

There are criteria for a special champion award for stores that go “above and beyond.” Other activities promoting healthy living have included Fresh Fruit Fridays every third Friday of the month to promote healthy snacks, and challenging employees to tell a joke to at least 10 different people as a stress reliever and to create camaraderie.

“It doesn’t have to be fancy and frilly,” Casey said. “They’re just fun things that have been very easy but I think very effective and that have definitely impacted our culture in its first year [of implementation].”

One employee testimonial in a Live Healthy newsletter pictured an employee and his wife who are saving more than $1,000 a month after kicking a smoking habit through the company tobacco cessation program.

Work still needs to be done to raise awareness, though, observed Casey, noting that the wellness aspect of employee choices often is not on the radar.

“You grab a pizza and a chocolate cake [from the Costco warehouse] and you’re good to go for your safety barbecue,” she remarked wryly.

Casey predicts the use of social media as the next wellness-related innovation.

At least one wellness advocate asked for a Facebook page. Postings include a photo of Costco employees at a 5K Memorial Day race, announcement of a group walk planned at a forest preserve near the warehouse, a notice of healthy yet cheap additions to the store’s vending machines, and one noting that the company’s health benefits cover over-the-counter allergy medications.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.


Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Post a Job


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect