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Business Collaboratives Help Build Cultures of Health

Employers join together to offer peer support for well-being initiatives

A group of people jogging in a park.

An organization that adopts a culture of health can benefit by collaborating with other employers.

A group of seven employers in the greater Philadelphia area are trying this out by undertaking a pilot project funded by the CDC Foundation, an independent nonprofit created by Congress to mobilize private-sector resources in support of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC's) critical health protection work.

In the Greater Philadelphia Employer Culture of Health Collaborative, participating companies use a peer-reviewed methodology created by consultancy HealthNEXT to assess their readiness to create a multifaceted culture of health within their company. They then share their results with the other collaborative members, under the aegis of the Greater Philadelphia Business Coalition on Health (PBCH), an employers group, which is also funding the project.

"We have all the employers using the same tools and processes," said PBCH President and CEO Neil Goldfarb. "They are talking about going through the same [formal assessment] experience."

An important aspect of the Philadelphia initiative is ongoing peer support, said Bette Francis, SHRM-SCP, chief human resource officer for one of the project's participants, the YMCA of Delaware.

"The collaborative really brought like-minded people together," said Francis, a former SHRM board chair.

Ray Fabius, HealthNEXT's president and chief medical officer, has published research showing that large companies that invest in a culture of health outperform their peers.

Francis agreed, noting that "by elevating the health and well-being of employees and their families, [we] start to make a significant contribution to the community's health" overall.

How It Works

The collaborative's assessment process begins with employers taking a standardized evaluation that gauges how ready they are to create a formal culture of health. Typical assessment questions include:

  • The percentage change in health care costs year to year.
  • Whether the organization has active champions of health and wellness activities.
  • Whether the organization has a chief medical officer.

Answers are then compiled to create a score relative to a benchmark score of 750, which Fabius compared to a credit score. The client then confers over time with a HealthNEXT medical expert to create and fine-tune its program, while receiving peer support and advice from other collaborative members.

There are two assessment forms, one for midmarket companies and one for companies with more than 5,000 employees. This is because there are some things a large employer can do that a midsize company can't, Fabius said. "You can't ask a midsize employer to run a cafeteria, a workplace health center or significant fitness center," he noted.

"The last 100 points becomes more challenging and may require structural changes at the corporate level," he added. "When you read about an effort by an employer that fails in wellness or well-being, it's because either they didn't execute it with excellence or it's [implementing steps have] been done out of sequence, and we can prevent that."

Francis said she has already come away with some useful advice based on the assessment and follow-up consultations. "The Y does a lot of activity around wellness—5K runs, workout rooms and all that—and yet we didn't necessarily have it formalized in a way we could point to," she said. Formalizing and branding its employee wellness activities "is helping to bring a lot of our programs together and shows that we're doing more than we thought we did," which can then be communicated to employees.

The collaborative is funded through July 2023, at which point Goldfarb hopes participating companies will see its value.

"The goal was to get the ball rolling, get the employers to do the standardized assessment, develop a strategic plan and implement it," he said. "We've given the employers the building blocks and incentive to get started."

Other Projects

The Philadelphia health collaborative is among the early efforts at gathering employers together to evaluate how prepared they are to improve their employees' health and well-being, but it is not the first.

Health Links, a research-to-practice program within the Center for Health, Work & Environment at the Colorado School of Public Health, was founded in 2012 to work with the state's small-business community to improve their efforts around employee health. It has expanded its efforts to work with 757 companies in 13 states.

Similar to the HealthNEXT methodology, Health Links uses an assess-advise-action format to help participating employers create healthier workplaces. Its participants report both quantified and "soft" dividends from the program:

  • Englewood, Colo.-based White Construction Group reported a 9 percent increase in health and safety program participation after joining Health Links. Through employee surveys, executives discovered their workers wanted more resources devoted to mental health. The company now provides stress management programs including free counseling through its employee assistance program. Additionally, it offers a workshop—Walking for Mental Health—that focuses on taking breaks and walking through nature to help employees relieve stress.
  • Denver-based home-repair firm Doctor Fix-It discovered its employees wanted more information around financial advising and physical activity. For those interested in financial advising, the HR team brought in consultants to give financial advice and resources. For those interested in physical activity, the company provided discounted memberships at local fitness facilities. As a result of changes made working with Health Links, employee participation in health and safety programs increased from 63 to 97 percent between 2017 and 2019. The company also increased its retention rate from 30.8 to 96.4 percent during this period.

Mitzi Schindler, senior director of communications for the Aurora, Colo., Chamber of Commerce, which helps its member companies participate in a grant-funded Health Links program, said "return on involvement" was clear in terms of the camaraderie the program generated.

Maintaining Results

In Philadelphia, Fabius and Francis both say HR executives can be strong advocates for a collaborative culture of health programs.

However, "while HR can play a vital leadership role, a sustainable corporate culture of health and well-being [requires] leadership and management support from the C-suite," Fabius said.

Francis added that the chief HR officer "is part of that C-suite and should be one of the drivers" of these efforts, to ensure that improvements in employees' health and well-being are sustained over time.

Greg Goth is a freelance health and technology writer based in Oakville, Conn.


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