By Deb Callahan, CAE
Health and fitness are just as beneficial for an organization's bottom line as they are for its employees' well-being. So says the recent conventional wisdom coming from a multitude of sources—from business magazines to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In my gut, I always believed this to be true, and when I stepped in as CEO of the National Fenestration Rating Council (NFRC) in 2015, I was eager to get the ball rolling to see how an employee wellness program could further shape an organization going through change.
My staff already knew that I was a pretty disciplined fitness nut. In addition to morning workouts, my weekends usually include competing in running and cycling events. And I'm known around the office for doing 10 pushups at the top of the hour—and not hesitating to invite passersby to join me. In this context, it surely came as no surprise when I announced that I was adding "being well" to my vision for staff that already lists hard work, honesty, professionalism, and customer service as employee ideals.
However, to my surprise, a focus on health and fitness wasn't readily embraced by all. I suspected that for some of our 19 staff—a microcosm of the broader public—the unwillingness could be rooted in uncertainty, confusion, and simply not knowing how to start. So we set about building awareness of the importance of wellness and nurturing a culture that values it for all.
We started with a familiar expression: You are what you eat. We invited a clinical dietitian to a "lunch and learn" session that we dubbed Nutrition 101. She ran us through the basics—calories in/calories out, good for you foods/bad for you foods, intolerances, "superfoods," proteins, carbs, hydration, lifestyle changes, and so on. The one-hour session ran for more than two, and we invited her to come back again. Staff were jazzed, and a roadmap to success began to take shape.
One day, someone observed that the healthy snacks were being consumed at a faster rate than the candy. NFRC was moving to healthier ground.
Gadgets! Most of us love them. And what better gadget to jump-start a wellness initiative than a step tracker? NRFC provided a Fitbit to every staff member who expressed interest. Our headquarters is located in an office park surrounded by a 2.5-mile fitness trail, so it was easy to implement our first step challenge: Staff were instructed to self-report their step totals for one month, after which the winner would get an "amazing" prize (in this case, new sneakers).
There is nothing like a contest to reveal your staff's competitive nature. From my first-floor office window, I watched small groups of employees head to the fitness trail throughout the day. It was satisfying to see members of our team enjoying the fresh air, spending time together, clearing their minds, and working their bodies every day.
I once heard someone say that you can't exercise yourself to better nutrition. A three-mile run will not reverse the negative effects of a burger and fries, especially as we get older. As in many offices, NFRC's kitchen featured an array of candy and chips. For all my talk about fitness and wellness, I too was fond of the candy jar.
During the course of our first fitness challenge, we added dried fruit and trail mix to our snack offerings. One day, someone observed that the healthy snacks were being consumed at a faster rate than the candy. Was it a coincidence or a willful change in habits? Regardless, NFRC was moving to healthier ground.
At the end of the first quarter of 2016, we decided to take better nutrition one step further by offering individualized vitamins to interested staff. Two-thirds of our staff opted for this offering, which factored preexisting conditions and family history into each individual's vitamin pack.
In the world of employee wellness, the body usually gets top billing, and that's understandable: Changes in exercise and eating habits are easy to quantify. But what about the mind? I wondered what NFRC could do to encourage our employees to take care of their mental health, their soul, and their overall well-being.
To get there, I wrote down my vision of staff. I boiled it down to this: I wanted a staff comprising engaged, competent, and creative people. I wanted a staff that were aware that NFRC expected the best they had to offer. And I wanted a staff that knew NFRC was invested in helping them to be all that they could be.
To that end, we started emphasizing the need for breaks—be it a lunch hour, a day off, or a two-week vacation. We engaged in staff cross-training so that employees can take vacation without worrying that their work will screech to a standstill while they're away.
We began offering biweekly seated massages to relax muscles and the mind. We designed a creative room where employees could meet and toss around ideas in more casual environment. We introduced the concept of play, with activities like pumpkin carving at Halloween, and had an office lunch cook-off. We emphasize personal growth and provide resources on everything from grammar to leadership, confidence to communication, attitude to teamwork.
After more than a year of focusing on wellness, the NFRC staff is gaining energy from exercising more, strengthening our bodies through better nutrition, and channeling our energy into our work. We're taking fewer sick days—they're down below the national average. Collectively, our staff of 19 has lost 76 pounds. We are off to a great start.
I think our wellness initiative is succeeding because we recognize that different people are motivated by different things—some by gadgets, some by healthy competition, some by making the mind-body connection. By tapping into those motivations, we've created a culture where employees choose to live a healthier lifestyle, rather than being forced to do so.
Any organization can do what we have done at NFRC. The roadmap to a successful wellness program begins with acknowledging that your employees are the most valuable asset you have and that an optimistic atmosphere fuels their desire to succeed and creates the energy to make it happen. As 2017 begins, we are fit, we are rested, and we are ready to work.
Deb Callahan, CAE, is CEO of the National Fenestration Rating Council in Greenbelt, Maryland. Email: [email protected]