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6 tips for keeping employees engaged in wellness programs

Gundersen Health System employees stroll along the company’s walking trail on its Onalaska campus.

Gundersen Health System employees stroll along the company’s walking trail on its Onalaska campus.

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If corporate wellness programs are to live up to the promise of controlling company health insurance costs, they require some care and feeding. The wellness concept is not simply a matter of designing a program, launching it, and hoping it works — it requires a consistent effort to keep employees, and their spouses, engaged in their own health outcomes.

With some doubts being raised about the effectiveness of corporate wellness programs, IB spoke to area employers and wellness executives about ways to keep employees engaged for the long haul. Much depends on how culturally ingrained an organization’s wellness program happens to be, but a great deal depends on the creative dedication of wellness coordinators.

So once you have established the basic elements — active C-suite participation and leadership, employee health-risk assessments, and the right mix of incentives to address cost drivers like obesity and smoking — you can use this six-pack abs’ worth of tips to deliver consistent follow-through.

Tip #1: Get on the family plan

Marcus Gagnon, wellness coordinator for Trek Bicycle Corp., says employee engagement is an ongoing issue for his company. That might sound counterintuitive for a company whose products promote active lifestyles, but believe it or not, Trek actually has some employees who do not own bicycles.

In 2014, with the Affordable Care Act allowing employers to incentivize healthy behaviors and punish bad health habits, the company will shift from what Gagnon called a participation-based program to more of a health-contingent program, “which is basically health premiums based on results,” he says.

As the company encourages employees to take a more active role in their health, it will also ask spouses to participate in the program. The rationale? Spouses who are covered through a family insurance plan add to costs, too, and whether or not they are employed at Trek, it’s worthwhile to open wellness up to them. Starting next year, spouses of employees will have access to company health coaches, nutritional outreach, exercise plans, and the company’s onsite clinic for services like blood pressure checks, full blood work and panels, and cholesterol testing. 

In addition, spouses will be encouraged to use Trek’s 4,000-sq.-ft. fitness center, which includes exercise equipment and separate studio space for fitness classes. “Roughly half of our health costs are from non-employees,” Gagnon says. “I think that’s probably a standard thing, but it’s certainly true for us. The reality is that we can do all the things we want internally, but if you’re not reaching out to the families, it’s not going to have the impact that we want on our health care costs.”

Tip #2: Ratchet up the competition

This summer, 113 Trek employees took part in the National Bike Challenge, a wellness initiative that encourages people to bike for both transportation and recreation. Collectively, about 16 Trek employee teams logged more than 750,000 miles during the competition, which was held from May 1 to Sept. 30. Internal leader boards were set up throughout the building so that team members, who were competing for cash prizes, knew where they stood. An Internet page accomplished the same purpose, so that everybody could see what position their team was in.

Through its commuter program, Trek has always encouraged employees to bike to work, but as he strolled through the company’s Waterloo facility, Gagnon noticed the bike challenge was generating more interest and chatter among employees. “You could hear conversations around the building [about team status],” he says. “That was a really cool thing. We have some employees who don’t ride bikes, which sounds counterintuitive but true, but people were buying bikes and getting out and riding them for the first time in 10 years, which is really exciting.”

Historically, cash incentives have worked well for Trek. When health risk assessments were introduced in 2005 as a voluntary measure, the resulting participation rate of 21% was not what the company was hoping for. When it introduced a $100 cash incentive, the participation rate jumped to 61%. And after linking wellness participation to higher employer contributions for medical insurance, Trek experienced near universal wellness participation. 

Tip #3: Create a garden of eatin’

At Trek, nutrition took on a greater emphasis in 2013 when the company added an onsite community garden in partnership with McKay Nursery. Employees could buy a garden plot and McKay would do all the watering and weeding for them. So instead of settling for, say, taste-challenged tomatoes that had been shipped halfway across the country, Trek workers could grow their own richer-tasting garden variety, which definitely counts as an incentive for healthier eating. 

According to Gagnon, 65 employees took advantage of the garden this year, and Trek also partnered with McKay to serve more local food in its company cafeteria, which is there to ensure that employees eat properly during working hours and to encourage the development of better eating habits when they are not in the facility. The cafeteria’s healthiest food items — lower in calories and fat — are identified with color codes.

“Employees getting fresh, organic food in the cafeteria was an interesting, cool thing for employees to take advantage of,” Gagnon noted. “We want to make sure we’re pushing the envelope, as well as holding people accountable at the same time to take an active role in their own health.

“We try to keep things fresh around here so that it’s not a stagnant program.”


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