Healthy employees make up a more satisfied, productive workforce — and they keep benefits costs down.
But even the most robust wellness programs fall flat if they don’t connect with employees.
While there’s no silver bullet, some basic principles can set companies on a path to a healthier workforce, according to panelists from four Kansas City-area companies that excel in this area.
The companies, along with several other local businesses, were identified by Healthiest Employers LLC, a data and research company that uses an online assessment tool to measure wellness programming.
At a recent discussion sponsored by Cigna Healthcare, panelists talked about why successful wellness programs must extend beyond physical health, the evolving best practices of impactful wellness programs, and the secrets of getting employees engaged.
Health isn’t just physical
Wellness doesn’t simply mean physical health, panelists said. It’s holistic — mental, social, emotional, spiritual, financial.
It means genuine concern for employees as individuals, and because of that, effective wellness programs must evolve over time as struggles change.
“When it comes to a healthy workplace, it’s about belonging — it’s not just about fitting in,” said Monica De Agostino, benefits and compensation manager for MRIGlobal. “It’s about feeling right at home. You can bring your authentic self to the workplace.”
Work-life balance has given way to life-work flow, and being understanding of that leads to loyalty, commitment, empowerment and trust, De Agostino said.
“One of the big things is just offering,” said Tiffany Snead, wellness program manager for the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC). “Having an onsite wellness program manager is always nice, but also doing a lot of different programs and presentations for all the different aspects.”
While it’s important to have biometric screenings and other check-the-box type of actions, panelists recommended continuous activities throughout the year to keep wellness top of mind and to provide options.
Kansas City applicants for Healthiest Employers were more likely to offer some type of paid maternity or paternity leave than the national data set, said panel moderator Chris Balda, Cigna Healthcare’s Health Engagement Director for the Mid-America Market.
And panelists said their companies have taken that concept even further.
“When it comes to parental leave, it’s centralized in inclusivity — making sure that it’s no longer a conversation about maternity leave and paternity leave,” De Agostino said. “For us, this is parental leave, and having equal bonding leave among all the parents.”
There are some variations for birth parent or non-birth parent because of the medical elements, but the changes got a lot of positive feedback, she said. MRIGlobal also updated its bereavement leave last year to include the loss of an unborn child — for both parents.
“It’s about making those deposits of trust,” De Agostino said. “Showing up for your employees, especially in those moments, really leads to development of loyalty and engagement.”
McCarthy Building Cos. Inc., an employee-owned commercial construction company, changed its language to paid family leave — but not just for new babies.
“We’re seeing more and more of that sandwich generation, where you’re taking care of aging parents or you have children who are ill, and you need to take time off,” said Lisa Sanders, McCarthy’s vice president of HR operations.
The company made the change going into 2020, and with the onset of the pandemic, it proved vital. This year, McCarthy increased that paid family leave by two weeks.
“Everyone’s needs are different,” Sanders said.
NAIC came up with a twist on family inclusion. Not only are family members welcome when the organization hosts medical events, but an Infants in the Workplace program allows parents to bring a child at least 6 months old to the office. Various rooms are available for the needs of children.
“That is probably one of our most joyous and one of our biggest programs,” Snead said.
Know thy employees
While it’s tempting to copy and paste a wellness program, the most effective ones consider specific challenges in a company and its industry.
There’s benefit to data, Balda said — it provides insights into the struggles of an employee population. Companies can use that knowledge to strategically plan health and wellness offerings.
“Data drives strategy that is totally a component of a successful health engagement program,” he said. “Otherwise, you’re just throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks.”
Some employees can be resistant to the use of data, Sanders said. So it’s vital to understand employees’ concerns and to communicate that the purpose is to put plans in place to make things better.
Based on data, companies can offer support, as well as preventive care that not only keeps employees healthy and can limit tragic situations — it can make a dramatic difference in benefits costs, panelists said.
NAIC’s analysis of high claims pinpointed cancer, diabetes and hypertension as key challenges for employees, and the organization has taken steps to respond, Snead said.
Through a partnership with The Johns Hopkins Hospital to manage cancer in the workplace, NAIC has access to a nurse navigator — an oncologist who offers mainly emotional support for anyone affected by cancer, including caregivers or friends. She also does virtual presentations about cancer awareness and cancer screenings. In keeping, NAIC offers onsite mammograms once a year to make screenings easily accessible.
The organization also encourages cancer screenings by educating hesitant employees about alternative screenings if they won’t go to their doctors.
Other programs focus on diabetes or hypertension risk factors, offering a health coach, weekly plans, access to relevant devices, and a support community — all through partnerships NAIC has established.
“A lot of our employees who have used this love it because they want that accountability,” Snead said.
Children’s Mercy’s employee assistance program offers employees five free mental health visits per situation per calendar year, at the end of which they can get referrals to network providers if they need additional help, said Candice Gwin, director of employee wellbeing for Children’s Mercy Hospital.
An onsite medical clinic offers two full-time behavioral therapists whose job is to help employees. And through a partnership with the Center for Wellbeing, clinicians and social workers in the hospital help with mental and emotional support for employees. That extends to mindfulness activities, crisis response, and other resources that support employees as they care for sick children.
“They will provide resources to help prevent burnout because, as we know, that’s just rampant in the health care industry,” Gwin said.
On a more lighthearted note, Children’s Mercy’s Pause with Paws program keeps retired service dogs around, perhaps coming to a meeting or being available in a room for people to play with them when they’re feeling stress.
“It’s a variety of different mental health resources that we provide,” Gwin said
Addressing the problems that cause problems
Sometimes, resources are most effective if they target the problems that cause health problems.
Mental health, for example, can be influenced by other stressors that can be alleviated.
Children’s Mercy offers telephone support for work-life balance, financial and legal matters, as well as finding care options for elderly parents or even planning a vacation.
For general contractor McCarthy, many employees face daily health risks, as well as the industry’s high risk of suicide, and they’re scattered across 150 active job sites at any given time. So when McCarthy leaders think about wellness, they consider not only the present but preparing their employee-owners to enjoy future retirement — physically, mentally, socially and financially, Sanders said.
“A big piece of that is making sure you meet people where they are,” she said.
During the past year, the company rolled out an enhanced employee assistance program to improve access to care, including to specialty providers that can be difficult to access.
“It was really important for us to have access to care, but also that they could do it virtually because we do have really remote job sites,” Sanders said. “Access to care is hard enough in a metropolitan area; it’s even harder when you go out to the middle of nowhere where there’s no health care at all.”
Similarly, a safety professional always is on or near job sites, and the company has borrowed the line, “It’s OK to not be OK,” to encourage struggling workers to seek help.
“We’re asking these construction workers to be away from their families to travel,” Sanders said. “It’s high-stress, high-risk, and also dangerous environments. It’s kind of that perfect, perfect recipe. So how do we take some of that burden off? … Leaders, top down, are talking about the importance of taking care of yourself.”
Watch your words
Education is a must, panelists said. Employees won’t take advantage of programs or prioritize health if they’re unaware.
Whether it’s promoting annual checkups, urging contributions to a retirement plan, helping employees navigate student loan forgiveness or consolidation, teaching insurance lingo, or promoting a financial health webinar, leaders must communicate relevant information in an excited voice that connects with the right audience.
Communication also must strike a balance between multi-faceted and relevant, panelists said.
Postings on an intranet that employees see daily, having team leaders offer reminders at meetings, and companywide events all can help, Gwin said.
McCarthy seeks vendors who can segment messaging so that it goes only to those for whom it’s relevant, perhaps based on demographics, diagnosis or even medication. It may include reminders for overdue screenings.
“If you’re doing all messaging to all employees, you’re going to lose them,” Sanders said.
Also, whatever companies offer must be straightforward, or employees won’t engage.
For example, when MRIGlobal updated its retirement plan a couple of years ago, it sought a simple plan that resonated with employees who ranged in age from 20s to 70s.
“Our rule of thumb was, we need to be able to explain our retirement plan in 10 seconds or less,” De Agostino said.
The approach worked. The latest numbers show 98% of employee participating in the retirement plans, she said.
The secret weapon
Even with companies’ many wellness efforts, simple incentives work, panelists said.
“We like to fool ourselves and think that people are participating because they want to get healthy,” Gwin said. “That’s all right, because what I always tell them is, you can do it for the money, but somewhere, you’re going to get hooked.”
Everyone knows wellness is important, but employees face a plethora of competing priorities, Sanders said.
“So if we incentivize them, and it makes (wellness) move up on their priority list, then we’ve helped engagement,” she said, adding that 90% of McCarthy employees are engaged on a voluntary basis monthly.
Perks can vary widely and take a creative bent.
Children’s Mercy has organized incentives such as challenges, onsite biometric screenings, and free onsite chair massages.
NAIC also tries to mix up incentives, such as certificates for a few hours or a whole day of extra paid time off, gift cards as part of an employee recognition program, or even payroll deposits.
“You always want to make people just enjoy being healthy … sometimes you’ve got to give them a little push in that direction, and incentives are really big,” Snead said.
Healthy employees make up a more satisfied, productive workforce — and they keep benefits costs down.