Workplace Wellness: Perspectives From a University and a Steel Fabrication Company

Mar 13, 2012, 2:49 PM, Posted by

More and more businesses and employers are taking action to improve the health of their employees and communities at large. Recently, we spoke with Jeff Johnson, President of Johnson Machine Works, Inc., and Joy Schiller, Director of Wellness at Des Moines University, about why their organizations have made wellness a priority, from the perspective of two very different businesses—one big, one small; one academic, one industrial. Both are members of the Wellness Council of Iowa, a group of business leaders committed to creating healthier workplaces for employees.

NewPublicHealth: Why did your organization join the wellness movement?

Joy Schiller, Des Moines University

Joy Schiller: There’s a real recognition that we as a health sciences university should be kind of a role model for the rest of the state and the nation. I tremendously appreciate as a wellness director that one of our goals is to provide education to our students and opportunities for wellness so our students on a personal level can see the benefits of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. When they go out as health care practitioners, they will be more apt to reinforce to their patients the importance of healthy lifestyle habits and how critical it is to quality of life and preventing chronic health problems.

Jeff Johnson: Our business is a steel fabrication business. We’ve got skilled welders, cutters and fitters, engineering types, detailers and project managers. It’s a real rough-and-tumble kind of a business.

Jeff Johnson, Johnson Machine Works, Inc.

I would say the reason we got into wellness is really for altruistic reasons. It’s just the right thing to do. We really feel strongly about enriching our employees and our shareholders and our customers and our community. That’s a part of our mission statement. We look at the kind of things that bring real value to our employees. On a real personal level, we spend so much time in a business environment, but what’s the point? You have to continue to generate a profit and grow the business so you can do other things—but what are those other things? Those other things are taking care of people and creating an environment where there’s good fellowship and good community and good health and wellness.

NPH: What are some specific programs you’re using to offer your employees and communities better wellness?

Joy Schiller: Our wellness program targets not only our students but our employees as well. For employees we have an incentive program called Wellness Pays. It’s a program to encourage our employees to maintain healthy lifestyles. It’s a very comprehensive program, from getting your annual physical, vision and dental exams, to a community component that breaks exercise down into cardio, strength and flexibility. Employees can earn annually up to $250 by maintaining healthy lifestyles, which is paid out to them as a bonus. They have to enter their data and do an annual health risk appraisal, and a wellness screening for biometric data, and they get reimbursed for doing that as well. That’s kind of the foundation of our program for employees.

The annual health risk appraisal and wellness screening are actually incorporated into the students’ curriculum as well, because it’s an educational component that not only helps them personally but also exposes them to some of the different ways to measure a person’s lifestyle habits. We also have a 25,000-square-foot wellness center, and employees and students have the option of designating a “plus-one”—a family member or friend or spouse—as an exercise buddy, or someone to keep them on track with their efforts to exercise [who also has access to the fitness facilities].

Jeff Johnson: Our wellness program has three areas: physical, spiritual and financial wellness. Our physical wellness is pretty standard and includes biometric screenings, body mass analysis, filling out the report about what kinds of exercise you’ve been doing and what kinds of foods you’ve been eating. We have a health coach who visits our plant once every few weeks. A couple months ago we had a seminar on reading the ingredients label off of a food can, and we just put together a bunch of different foods over the lunch hour and people could sample different things. We also have fresh fruit we put out every day out in the shop. In years past you’d see a lot of cigarette butts and tobacco and donuts and that sort of thing. Now we fill our card tables full of bananas and peaches and grapes and all of that for free for all of our employees. So you can grab a piece of fresh fruit if you want to chew on something, instead of something bad for you.

On the financial wellness side, we practice Financial Peace University. We provide that program for all our employees. That’s also extended to the broader community as well. Our thought process there is if you can develop more interest in it, then that group will create more motivation and inspire others to get their financial houses in order. It’s a wonderful class. It doesn’t matter where the decimal point is on your paycheck; we’re all dealing with the same issues. They’re being coached on some real specific tools they can use to turn their finances around. That’s the kind of stress you’re going to bring to work, particularly in our work environment. There are a lot of ways you can get hurt in my shop. If you can clear your head, not only are you going to be safer, but you’re going to be more productive and you’re going to be at peace, which is the enriching part of it.

The third point is spiritual. It’s nondenominational, but we have a male and a female chaplain. Some people want to visit with them and some people don’t, and it’s nonintrusive. They can talk to them by phone or at home. I can’t even tell you how many amazing stories have come out of that program. It extends to all of our employees, employees’ families, vendors and customers. It encompasses the whole physical, mental, spiritual and financial wellness.

Joy Schiller: It’s so easy just to focus on getting active, which we all know is vital. But there are a lot of barriers to maintaining healthy lifestyle habits. Financial troubles and worry and stress—a lot of those things can get in the way with people maintaining their health. That peace of mind and harmony will make you more likely to maintain exercise and good nutrition. Stress can make you go in the opposite way of doing what you should be doing. That’s an amazing program.

NPH: How are wellness efforts different at different kinds of employers, and how can what you do apply to other employers across the country?

Joy Schiller: Smaller companies have fewer resources than a university or a larger corporation, but the one thing I say is anything you can do support employees in their efforts to maintain healthy lifestyles is so critical. You have to start somewhere. You need to persevere. Even the little things are going to make a difference.

Survey your employees to find out what’s valuable to them. Even providing resources for people is helpful. Through the Iowa Department of Public Health, they have a resource to help businesses build healthier workplaces, and it’s geared more toward smaller workplaces who don’t have the resources. Businesses should know there are resources and people they can contact to help them get started with their worksite wellness efforts.

Jeff Johnson: I agree with all of that, Joy. The idea of a small and a large employer wellness program is really the same. We’re a very small population—we’ve got 90-100 employees. We’re just trying to figure it out one step at a time. It’s beautiful the way one element of the wellness program has complemented the other. Now we’re developing a broader wellness committee and we’re trying to reinvent it all the time. It grows and grows and grows.

The critical thing is you just need to have a champion. We do spend a fair amount of money on our wellness activities. I can’t say at this point that because we did this, this is what happened. But we’ve got amazing results, and I’m pretty sure it has to do with our wellness efforts. I guess my advice would be to just get started. Take one step at a time, and get going.

NPH: Are you going beyond employee wellness to also making your community a healthier place to live?

Jeff Johnson: For us, part of our mission statement extends to enriching the community. We intentionally want to help other folks in the community. The biggest driver is the more the merrier. When you get more people involved, it’s going to incentivize all of us. Everyone wants to be a part of a big group.

Joy Schiller: It’s kind of interesting you ask that question because recently I was named the chair for the taskforce on the Healthiest State Initiative. Iowa ranks 19th among U.S. states in terms of healthy behaviors. The governor’s goal for us is to be the healthiest state in the nation in 5 years. DMU has partnered with some of the major community groups here in the area with the idea of contributing and helping with this initiative to make Iowa a much healthier state. DMU has a real strong commitment to the community. We also have a community service director, and our students are always volunteering at the finish lines after runs to provide osteopathic manipulations, foot exams, blood pressure screenings and so on. It’s really instilled in our students and our employees that it’s a priority to really make a difference to the community.


This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.