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Profiles in Wellness: Four HR Leaders Taking a Holistic View


​HR leaders who invest in effective wellness programs reap a healthy dose of positive outcomes for their companies. That’s why some of them are doubling down on wellness. According to the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2018 Employee Benefits survey report, of organizations that increased benefits offerings in the previous year, 44 percent boosted wellness offerings. Three-quarters of employers provide wellness resources and information, collectively spending roughly $8 billion a year to tackle issues such as smoking cessation, disease management and weight loss. 

There is also evidence that HR professionals are taking a more expansive view—one that goes beyond the physical aspects of well-being—and many of them are using more technology to help employees become their best selves. 

“Today, businesses take a more holistic approach to wellness,” says LuAnn Heinen, a vice president at the National Business Group on Health. Medical care is still important, of course. “But there is an awareness of other factors, such as how sleep and nutrition affect health,” she says. “There is more talk about stress and resilience.”

As a result, these days you’ll see more practitioners creating nap rooms and holding meditation training sessions, along with continuing to offer traditional flu shots and health screenings.

“There is more [focus on] the mind-body connection,” says Jen Fisher, U.S. well-being leader at Deloitte. Her company offers employees an annual subsidy of up to $500 for health- and fitness-related expenses such as massages or entrance fees for running a marathon. 

Although employers’ return on investment from wellness benefits can be difficult to quantify, a 2018 survey by UnitedHealthcare found that 62 percent of program participants said their productivity improved, 56 percent had fewer sick days and 30 percent reported that the program helped detect a medical condition.

Wellness initiatives may also offer HR professionals opportunities to improve employee engagement and retention, since 73 percent of workers without access to such programs would like to have it, according to the UnitedHealthcare survey. 

Following are profiles of four companies with HR leaders who each have found a formula to promote employee wellness that works for their workforce and their business.

1. The Breakers

A luxury beachfront resort with 538 guest rooms in Palm Beach, Fla., that employs 2,200 workers.

What it offers: Biometric screening; onsite fitness classes and coaching; weekly sales of discounted fruit and vegetables, along with healthy cooking instructions; treadmill workstations; and standing desks.

Why: “We don’t want the person at our front desk feeling totally depleted after four or five hours,” says Denise Bober, vice president of human resources. “How engaged will they be with the last person they see? People work long hours in this business, and we want to give our staff energy.”

Strategy for stamina: Earlier in her career, Bober attended a three-day seminar at the Human Performance Institute designed to teach people how to maintain their energy levels through psychology, exercise, physiology and nutrition. It was a transformative experience that helped educate her about healthy eating, proper body movement and even how to find her life’s purpose, she says. 

Currently, the hotel’s senior managers attend three-day workshops, and nonexecutive employees, including housekeeping and waitstaff, participate in abbreviated versions. 

Challenge: Employees who work with guests can’t always take the breaks touted in the workshops, so the HR team designed accommodations to compensate for that. For example, snack and hydration stations are situated throughout the hotel, and every effort is made to maintain appropriate staffing levels so people can take an occasional respite.

Results: The hotel has a retention rate of 82 percent. Contrast that to a turnover rate of 74 percent for the hospitality sector as a whole, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. A study by Cornell University found that employee turnover costs hospitality companies an average of $5,864 per employee. 

2. Cerner

A Kansas City, Mo.-based supplier of health information technology solutions with 22,000 employees in the United States and over 28,000 worldwide. 

What it offers: Personal wellness coaches, assistance with fertility treatment expenses, guided meditation, nutrition management programs and reimbursements for health club fees.

Why: In 2006, the HR team realized its health care costs were exploding and would more than double by 2012 without significant changes, according to Arielle Bogorad, senior director for benefits and well-being.

The jewel in the crown: Cerner has in-house medical clinics at its four locations in and around Kansas City, as well as at its facility in Bangalore, India. Its leaders opened the company’s first onsite clinic in 2006 predominantly to address urgent care needs. However, a year later, the focus  shifted to  primary care. “We wanted to eliminate waste from the system while delivering high-quality care,” Bogorad says. The company also offers financial assistance to women trying to conceive and supports them throughout their pregnancies so they have a continuum of care.

Challenge: Since co-workers visit the same facility, to guard employees’ privacy, the clinics are designed so patients don’t see each other while waiting for a doctor. Instead of sitting in a communal waiting room, people sign in at a kiosk and then proceed to a private area outside of the doctor’s office before their appointments.

Results: Bogorad estimates that productivity savings from the onsite clinics have totaled $28 million. In fact, the clinics have been so successful that operating them for other companies has become one of Cerner’s business lines. “We are our own R&D lab,” she says.

​6 Ways to Get More From Your Wellness Program

1. Determine your goals. Is your aim to promote physical fitness? Reduce health care costs? Retain employees? Lower workers’ stress levels? A disease management program may slow the growth of health insurance premiums but is unlikely to help you prevent an employee who doesn’t use it from leaving. 

2. Actively promote the programs. Employees can’t take advantage of benefits if they don’t know they exist. Use multiple channels to get the word out.

3. Get senior leaders to model wellness behaviors. People will be more likely to use the gym during the day or schedule a walking meeting if they see senior executives doing it. 

4. Ask employees what they want. This can help your organization avoid the common disconnect between workers’ needs and companies’ offerings. That gap can cost money. 

5. Decide whether to build your program or outsource it. Strategies such as paying for gym memberships or opening an onsite fitness facility may help employees be more physically active, although the former is likely more economical than the latter. 

6. Be patient. Remember that changing a corporate culture—or individual behavior—is a long process. Monitor program adoption rates, but don’t be discouraged if raising participation levels takes longer than expected. 

3. The Motley Fool

A 25-year-old multimedia company based in Alexandria, Va., that provides investment advice and employs about 300 people. 

What it offers: Free biometric screenings; flu shots; onsite fitness, yoga and meditation classes; free personal training sessions; stress reduction tools and counseling; monthly physical challenges; and treadmill and standing desks. There is no set vacation policy. The company trusts employees to manage their own time off. 

Why: “We’re an intellectual-property company, and our people are our No. 1 expense,” says Lee Burbage, chief people officer. “We work pretty hard to make sure people love coming to work every day.” In addition, having a healthy workforce is in the company’s best interest, Burbage says. “You can’t be your best self if you aren’t healthy.” 

The secret weapon: Before Samantha Whiteside, chief wellness officer, was hired six years ago, the company’s fitness program consisted of organizing an occasional soccer game and having workers do jumping jacks in the conference room. Now, thanks to her initiative, employees can attend daily exercise classes or participate in monthly fitness challenges, which are announced in an e-newsletter that highlights the company’s wellness resources. Whiteside meets with all new employees to review the company’s wellness benefits. “People understand that health is part of our culture,” Burbage says. 

Challenge: There was pushback a few years ago when the company’s leaders decided to remove the soda machine and stop stocking candy around the office. “It took a while for people to get used to it,” Burbage recalls. 

Results: In company surveys, 88 percent of those highly engaged in the wellness program say they feel very positive about work, and 79 percent say they leave the office feeling great. In contrast, just 64 percent of those who don’t participate in the program leave for the day in such high spirits.

4. Paychex

A Rochester, N.Y.-based company with just over 14,000 employees that provides software and technology solutions for functions such as human resources and payroll to small and midsize companies. 

What it offers: Discounted gym memberships; health coaches; standing desks; a smoking-cessation program; walking paths; affordable, healthy food in the cafeteria; treadmill workstations; fitness challenges; and flu shots.

Why: “We wanted to improve our employees and create a closer bond with them,” says Jake Flaitz, director of benefits. “It was more than just getting a return on investment, though we did think we would get that, too.” The company’s health care costs are running 2 percent to 3 percent below the national average, according to Flaitz.

Challenge: “You want to create programs that are interesting, but there has to be a balance,” he says. “Too much and it becomes overwhelming.” Over the last several years, the HR team wound down its disease management program due to underutilization. He suspects that employees may have been nervous about using a company-sponsored initiative to address a chronic condition due to concerns about privacy. 

Tapping technology: Leaders at Paychex launched a telemedicine program over a year ago that is available to employees 24 hours a day via phone or videoconferencing. They instituted it after realizing that many employees were relying on the emergency room and urgent care clinics for routine health needs. The telemedicine program has reduced both types of costly care, and employees like the convenience of not having to take time off to go to medical appointments during the day. 

Next up: Earlier this year, Paychex completed a 12-week pilot program at one of its sites to teach employees mindfulness techniques focused on stress reduction. Feedback was positive, so the company is considering expanding the program. “Employees say they have used what they learned,” Flaitz says.   

Theresa Agovino is a freelance writer based in New York City.

Illustration by Dan Page