Making Wellness Work

Attendees at HRE's 2018 Health & Benefits Leadership Conference walked away with an arsenal of tips, tricks and ideas for implementing best-in-class health and benefits programs.
By: | May 10, 2018 • 11 min read

If just one theme could be picked for HRE’s 2018 Health & Benefits Leadership Conference, it would be whole-person wellness. According to experts at the conference, held in April in Las Vegas, instead of offering blanket benefits that check a box, employers should personalize benefits to the individual employee. That’s not saying that every single person within an organization has his or her own plan—instead, it’s about choices.

Companies that are still offering a one-size-fits-all approach to health and benefits had better change their strategy, and quickly, said L. Casey Chosewood, the conference’s opening keynote speaker and director of the Office for Total Worker Health at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He kicked off this year’s conference with a plea for benefits leaders to focus their efforts on proactive measures that address underlying health concerns of employees, such as the work/life balance, rather than the reactive programs that are currently in place.

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Chosewood shared troubling statistics with attendees about the health risks associated with high stress and lack of sleep, including increased risk of obesity, heart disease and stroke.

“You can’t overcome long hours and unfavorable work conditions with a lunch-and-learn on diabetes,” he said. “Health promotion is important, but it’s not the only area in which we need to intervene. It’s not powerful enough to move metrics on challenges we’re all facing.”

This message was echoed throughout many of the subsequent general sessions, mega sessions and breakouts.

Diverse Benefits for Diverse Employees

Diversity and inclusion must extend beyond talent acquisition and into company benefits, according to Donna Sirak, senior diversity and inclusion planning analyst at Erie Insurance, and Erin Siegrist, director of the company’s Workforce of the Future program. In their joint session, “Diversity and Inclusion: A Friend With Benefits,” they discussed Erie’s D&I journey, which included the development of benefits designed to reflect company culture.

In 2010, the company organized four business-resource groups focused on business issues impacting customers. In 2011, D&I training was provided to everyone within Erie Insurance, and a D&I council was formed. The following year, Erie joined the Dignity and Respect campaign, a federal initiative to promote inclusion in the workplace. In 2013, the company added a D&I focus to all of its orientation training. In 2016, Erie created employee-affinity networks, including women’s, African-American and multi-generational groups.

Siegrist said Erie also “got to know itself,” as benefits professionals worked closely with the HR-analytics group to learn about Erie employees, crucial for delivering the right benefits, she said.

Data showed that 98 percent of Erie’s workforce were white-collar, full-time workers. One-fifth was millennials, the average age of employees was 46, one-third of the workforce worked remotely and turnover hovered around 5 percent.

Erie consistently reviews these data to stay on top of the workforce trends to ensure the best benefits are available for “who we’re becoming and not who we’ve been,” Siegrist said.

Since 2012, Erie has added to or modified its benefits package several times. In 2013, it began offering two floating holidays for employees to use when they saw fit instead of selecting blanket holidays for the company. The next year, Erie began offering coverage for hearing aids; that benefit has been surprisingly popular among employees and has remained a part of the package since its inception, the speakers said. More recent offerings include fertility-treatment coverage, new-parent leave policies and expanded jury duty and vacation days for part-time employees.

So, did all these benefits make a difference to employees—did they care? According to Sirak and Siegrist, the answer is “yes.”

Since 2012, Erie has participated in the Great Place to Work survey—which is taken by more than 10-million employees worldwide annually—and, year after year, employee benefits are ranked just below company culture as to what makes Erie a great employer.

In 2012, 68 percent of employees surveyed said Erie provided special and unique benefits, a number that jumped to 86 percent by 2017. Siegrist was particularly thrilled with that figure, as it was above the Great Place to Work Institute’s high-performer benchmark.

Sirak and Siegrist closed their presentation with a checklist of items HR leaders can follow when implementing or modifying benefits. The list includes:

  • Evaluate your current benefits (collect data, examine why some benefits have been “sunsetted,” determine what needs to go and what can replace it).
  • Solicit employee needs and preferences.
  • Conduct a business case to propose new benefits.
  • Implement and promote new benefits (if rates increase, ensure employees understand that the hike in price isn’t because of the new benefits—the company isn’t raising the rates of many to cover the few).
  • Monitor for employee satisfaction.

In order for companies to be truly innovative, they added, acknowledge if a plan doesn’t work and use data and metrics to move on to the next idea.

Whole-person Wellness

How do you achieve an “off-the-charts” engagement level for your wellness program? Micron International Inc. Wellness Specialist Chelsea Brown says it starts with meeting employees where they are.

During a session titled “Micron Takes Well-being Global,” Brown spoke about the need to address issues most important to employees, from financial health to physical activity to nutrition. Through its wellness initiative—which deploys Virgin Pulse’s well-being platform—Micron is now able to address “the whole health of team members,” she said.

Four years ago, that wasn’t the case.

Indeed, when Brown started at Micron in 2014, the company still had a smoking lounge. “You walked through the cafeteria and into a large version of an airport smoking lounge,” she recalled. “It gave me the chills.”

Brown knew something needed to change—and fast.

Micron ultimately implemented a policy that eliminated smoking in front of the building and in lounges. Initially, Brown recalled, “we were very unpopular with our smokers. But we have also seen smoking levels drop.”

Today, those former smoking areas are spaces where employees can play ping pong, meditate or pray.

Brown, who presented her remarks along with Virgin Pulse founder Christopher Boyce, emphasized the importance of leadership buy-in, but not in the traditional sense. While Micron’s CEO was very supportive of the revamped wellness efforts, she said, some of the company’s roughly 57 vice presidents weren’t all that engaged.

“A lot of times, as we’re branching out new programs,” Brown said, “we can get really caught up in the few leaders who are not thought partners. That can be a real barrier. Instead, we [decided to focus] our energy on middle managers who already believed in what we were doing.”

Brown also pointed to a letter Micron’s HR vice president wrote to each employee. “The letter said, in her tone and in her voice, why well-being is important at Micron and why well-being should be important to each of us as human beings,” Brown said.

It was translated into multiple languages “so every team member on the planet” could read it.

Currently, Brown said, Micron boasts a 71-percent “consistent-engagement” level for its wellness programs. It’s a metric she’d like to have tattooed on her arm, she said, as it means people aren’t just putting the program on the back burner, but are coming back consistently.

Unmasking Mental Health

The conference presented a holistic view of well-being, as a panel of experts discussed the prevalence, challenges and solutions of addressing mental health in the workplace. Nancy Spangler, senior consultant at the Center for Workplace Mental Health of the American Psychiatric Association Foundation, moderated the discussion.

Spangler said one in five adults has a mental-health disorder and one in 10 has a substance-abuse problem. The economic impact of major depressive disorder and its comorbid medical conditions, she added, in the U.S. is more than $210 billion annually. Half of these costs are workplace-related, such as absence and presenteeism.

There are more reasons to address mental health at work than the financial aspect, and the experts were armed with solutions, including addressing stigma and enhancing benefits.

Kim Hauge, director of employee wellness at Kent State University, implemented an initiative into the university’s five-year strategic plan that provided employees with tools to address mental health. She also led a three-month campaign in which every leader and employee was made aware of resources for mental- and behavioral-health issues. An EAP representative was present during all meetings to reinforce the program benefits.

Hauge said the employee track of the program was designed to teach workers how to recognize depression and speak to colleagues about concerns and where to find resources. The leadership track taught managers about depression, its prevalence and what they can do if they see a troubled employee. It also addressed empathy—participants were taught to pause and consider if something they might normally call a “workplace-performance issue” may actually be an underlying mental-health issue.

After the initiative, EAP utilization significantly increased (from 13 percent in 2015 to 55 percent in 2017) and healthcare-claim dollars significantly decreased—just by talking about mental health.

Andrew Crighton, vice president and chief medical officer at Prudential, said the company has also worked hard to destigmatize mental health, so much so that executives recorded videos for employees about their own struggles with substance abuse and depression, and the eventual success they found with the resources at Prudential. When leaders talk about these issues, he said, employees really listen.

At Mercer, Sandra Kuhn, principal and lead for the behavioral-health consulting group, said clients with whom she’s worked often face five “buckets” of challenges in addressing mental health: access to care, cost of care, stigma, quality and integration. Access dips into cost because many providers don’t participate in-network, so employees are forced to look out-of-network, which dramatically increases their out-of-pocket costs.

Kuhn said integration is important because mental health shouldn’t be siloed from medical coverage or wellness programs.

Spangler noted that, so often within wellness initiatives, physical activity and nutrition are stressed as preventative measures for cardiovascular disease or cancer but research is increasingly indicating that both measures are also hugely important for mental health.

“If we talk about mental health this way, we reduce stigma automatically,” she said.

Before concluding their session, Kuhn discussed ways to leverage technology and behavioral health. She mentioned that a large client of hers implemented text-based therapy, which was a good fit for a big portion of the company’s employees—no one knows whom you’re texting, she said, so there’s limited stigma attached to this counseling method.

Mental health was also the focus of “Transforming the Employee Healthcare Experience,” moderated by HRE benefits columnist Carol Harnett. The panelists included Crighton; Janet McNichol, HR director at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association; and Kristin Reilly, vice president of global people experience at Walmart.

The panelists all agreed that destigmatizing mental health is key for any successful wellness program. Reilly pointed to a pilot program that connected employees with an on-site EAP clinician, instead of an over-the-phone consultation.

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“The on-site clinician helps normalize mental-health communication, which has made it ‘acceptable’ for employees to see her,” said Reilly. “In just six months, the clinician has addressed 98 percent of requests for mental-health assistance on-site.”

Habits at Work

The closing keynote speaker, Andrew Sykes, founder and president of Habits at Work and BRATLAB, took well-being to another level by explaining how business habits actually create unhealthy employees.

The fundamental human desire is to be healthy, happy and financially secure, said Sykes. But the one reason almost everyone gives for not achieving these outcomes is work. If employers looked at their physical environment—from food in the cafeteria to static work stations—as well as employee workloads, PTO policies and the organizational culture, they could begin to see why their employees are sick, tired and stressed.

Sykes said other barriers to well-being lie within individuals themselves. Imagine being 5 years old and belting out a beautiful song, he said. Then someone says you sound awful, or they laugh at you. The story you tell yourself is that you can’t sing well. Over time, the story becomes, “I can’t sing at all.”

This mentality applies to employee well-being—if people think, “I can’t exercise” or “I’m incapable of losing weight,” they’ll never participate in a wellness program because they lack the confidence to try.

Benefits professionals, said Sykes, need to implore other leaders to not only change the built-in environment of the business but also its culture.

“Culture is nothing more or less than the sum of the habits that we practice as employees every day. Culture change and habit change are two sides of the identical coin,” he said.

Sykes also pointed out that it’s imperative that business leaders stop thinking about employees as the problem. They need to take responsibility for the design of the business because “business designs, not wellness programs and insurance plans, explain whether people will practice healthy habits at work,” he said.

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