Sweat Equity: Local companies put grants toward employee wellness

TentCraft used a 2016 grant to help buy paddle boards, kayaks and snowshoes for employees to use.

Walking paths, fat tire bikes, yoga, kayaks and stand up paddle boards aren’t just popular for leisure. Employers are now tapping into these activities and more to boost the health and well-being of their employees – incorporating exercise, nutrition, furnishings and other offerings into daily work worlds.

Fueled by grants, corporate pocketbooks and drive, it’s an investment that employers say can pay off in healthier and happier employees, higher productivity, and help them attract and retain talent – a top-of-mind challenge and goal for many.

“It’s the whole package that I think people are looking for now,” said Jeannette Storms, senior human resource generalist at RJG Inc., an injection molding training and technology company. “They want to come to work and feel like they’re part of a family that cares about them.”

Investing in wellness, she says, does that. At RJG’s Traverse City headquarters, an outside deck with stand-up work surfaces – built late last summer – brings a new dimension to meetings and employee work days. So do kayaks and a paddleboat, purchased for launching on the Boardman River alongside the company’s offices that house about 95 of the company’s 161 global employees.

Add in other offerings – like a refrigerator stocked with healthy snacks, a web-based service to help employees draw up wellness plans and reach health goals, 15-minute onsite massages, and paid time off for dental cleanings and annual physicals with a cash prize awarded to one participant each year – and the company hopes to make a difference in employees’ health and morale.

In steps large and small, wellness initiatives are changing worksites. Among them: healthier vending machine choices, wellness challenges and emails, fitness classes, stairwell improvements to motivate use of stairs instead of elevators, purchases like stand-up desks and under-desk elliptical machines and bikes, and construction of indoor and outdoor walking paths.

Traverse City’s eFulfillment Service Inc., which provides e-commerce businesses with inventory storage, order processing, shipping and returns service, began moving toward health and wellness initiatives in 2017. The company formed a committee with representation from all departments and established a mission statement and goals that in 2018 touched on four areas: nutrition, including offering healthy choices in office and warehouse and nutritional information; education, creating an area stocked with health and wellness-related materials and other elements; equipment and resources, purchasing a blood pressure monitor and a scale; and smoking cessation.

The company, which has 116 employees, also mapped out and created an approximately quarter-mile walking track in its 200,000-square-foot warehouse and implemented “wellness Wednesday lunch and learns,” said human resources manager Merry Hawley. The popular monthly gatherings have featured topics like ergonomics, stretching, first aid, stress management and even belly dancing, paired with a company-paid free healthy lunch, Hawley said.

She said investing in wellness programs is “a win-win” for employees and employer. On the horizon this year is further focus on smoking cessation and other projects.

“I didn’t realize the extent of our investment in health and wellness, what it was it was going to lead to,” Hawley said. “It’s like a snowball effect; it just keeps rolling.”

Propelling health and wellness initiatives at eFulfillment, RJG and many other employers in the region have been federally funded grants funneled through the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) to local health departments and at one point, Northwest Michigan Works! The initiative, called Getting to the Heart of the Matter in Michigan, is supported with funds from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and addresses a variety of health strategies.

Northwest Michigan is one of two target regions in the state and has received $280,000 that’s been re-granted as stipends to 64 worksites from 2016 through 2019, said Lynne DeMoor, community health coordinator/nutritionist with the Health Department of Northwest Michigan. The Harbor Springs-based department, District Health Department #10 and the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department have handled the program in the region, she said.

The re-grants or stipends have ranged from $3,000 to $5,000 and come with the requirement that companies first complete an assessment to help identify changes they can make. That assessment is part of the MDHHS’ Designing Healthy Environments at Work initiative, which has a website with aids for employers to improve the health of their workforce. The mihealthtools.org/work website includes survey tools to capture employee interests and feedback, an area to post worksite success stories, and other resources.

DeMoor said once an employer completed an assessment, a local health department consultant would meet with the company and identify areas they might want to address. Grants have been used for a variety of activities; she did not know if funding will be available past the current grant year, which ends Sept. 30. But DeMoor and others say steps toward employee wellness don’t have to cost a lot.

“Sometimes it’s just a matter of organizing activities – getting a potluck going,” DeMoor said. “There are some things that don’t cost anything and are really easy to do. Even something simple like purchasing bike racks, so folks can bike to work.”

Kathy Taylor, regional operations manager at workforce development agency Northwest Michigan Works!, said that while money might help jump start an effort, so can an employee “champion” who feels strongly about starting a wellness committee and promotes that direction in the organization.

“Running a wellness program does not have to be expensive. It can be having walking groups, bringing in speakers for ‘lunch and learn,’” Taylor said. “The message there is we care about you, we care about your health, and we’re going to have a wellness committee and we’re going to have activities.”

For example, a staff wellness program she helped pilot when she was at the Northwest Michigan Works! Cadillac service center spread to other Michigan Works! centers in Traverse City, Petoskey and Manistee. Taylor said the centers now each have a budget for wellness activities, which in Traverse City have included healthy luncheons and speakers, yoga classes and walking challenges, the latter of which at one point included buying pedometers for all participants.

Taylor said people reported losing weight, sleeping better and being more alert at work, and there was another change: Fitness and health achievements became workplace conversation topics.

“It just kind of changed the conversation, which is what we want,” Taylor said.

Programs can also build a sense of connection among employees. At Iron Fish Distillery in Thompsonville, classes in high-intensity interval training, yoga and core exercise were among offerings the company began last year with the help of a grant.

“It provided health benefits but it also provided a number of cultural benefits to our workplace, in terms of people building relationships in other ways, having other shared bonds beyond what is going on in the work environment,” said Iron Fish Co-founder Sarah Anderson.

She said exercise classes, led by a staff member who became certified to teach them, attracted between a third to a half of Iron Fish’s workforce, which numbers about 21 people currently and reaches some 45 in the summer. The company also created an employee garden, installed signs along a hiking trail by the distillery and this summer plans to launch a running club.

Plastic chain manufacturer M R Products Inc. has put a couple grants to use – one toward building a pavilion with picnic tables and a grill to encourage employees to cook healthy meals and another used in part last year to purchase two fat tire bikes. The Copemish company’s 61 employees can take the bikes on a nature trail next to M R Products during their breaks and lunch and also check them out for weekends and vacations, said human resource manager Carol Mathias.

M R Products also pays 75 percent of employee fitness center membership costs at nearby Crystal Mountain and has equipped some of its offices with desks that convert between sit-down and stand-up use, Mathias said.

“I’ve really seen people liking that – to be able to not be stuck in that chair all day,” she said. “Just to have that option to move around a little bit is making them physically feel better.”

She said through these and other workplace wellness initiatives – including tests for areas like blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar that have led to treatment of previously unidentified health issues – she sees employees “who are trying to keep themselves healthier. We have healthier employees, and I think we have more dedicated employees, because they know we are investing in them.”

Also going down the health and wellness path – literally – is Kalkaska Screw Products Inc. The company surveyed employees to gauge their interests in elements of a health and wellness program and what they would participate in, and used a grant to create a walking trail through wooded areas outside of the Kalkaska plant, said Elizabeth Dewey, human resources manager.

The wood chip path – a quarter-mile long with a loop that can make it a half-mile walk – was constructed with rental equipment and by employees last August. It includes an area for employees to reflect and clear their minds. The company also purchased benches to provide an outside space for its 106 employees and, Dewey said, created an employee fruit and vegetable garden area that this spring is getting planted.

Employers that have started health and wellness initiatives embrace them, as part of corporate culture, brand and budgets. Traverse City’s TentCraft, for example, used a 2016 grant to help purchase purchase four stand up paddle boards, four kayaks and 10 sets of snowshoes for employees to rent for free, and branded the program TentCraft Outdoor.

Rob Hanel, TentCraft’s people manager, said the company sees it as important to invest in its most important assets – its people – and also wants to convey to potential recruits “that TentCraft has a culture that encourages people to get outside. We want to attract people who are active, inside and outside of work.”

The reception from potential job candidates has been positive, with cover letters and inquiries referencing the sports gear.

“It’s really a conversation-starter,” Hanel said. “I think what it does is it introduces them to our culture before they actually speak with us. And they’re seeking us out. That’s that one kind of little tidbit that separates you from the competition.”

He said that about 40 percent of TentCraft’s 75 employees have rented the gear over the last couple years and some have gone on to purchase their own kayaks and SUPs. A second grant got TentCraft started offering onsite weekly yoga classes, which Hanel said the company will continue with its own dollars.

“Our duty and our obligation as a recipient of that [grant] money” is to continue programs and invest in them, Hanel said. “That’s something that we are committed to and we budget for annually now.”

TentCraft and other employers, like Hagerty, also participate in a Community Supported Agriculture program in which employees buy fruits and vegetables directly from local farms. At Hagerty, that’s just one element of what the classic vehicle insurer does to encourage and support health and wellness. Items include providing an annual amount toward employees’ gym, Weight Watchers and other memberships; full reimbursement for entry fees in races and other competitions; and a gym in the Traverse City headquarters that offers equipment, classes, training, yoga and meditation.

There’s also wellness coaching and one-on-one nutritional counseling, classes and workshops, and stipends of up to $240 a year to defray bike maintenance costs for employees who commit to bike to work, said Dempsey Van Timmeren, Hagerty wellness and fitness manager. Participating employees need to commit to ride their bikes to work three or more days a week year-round; about 20, mostly in Hagerty’s Traverse City office, do so, she said.

And every afternoon, in every department, there’s a stretch break led for a few minutes by a Hagerty trainer.
Van Timmeren said Hagerty tries to provide offerings that meet a variety of interests, needs and levels. “We try to meet people where they’re at,” she said. “If we can positively impact somebody’s life in any one of these programs, then that’s a positive thing for sure.”

Jesse Wolff, senior advisor with Accelerate Health, a Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation strategic priority to build health and well-being in northwest lower Michigan, said what Hagerty and other employers are doing can have a ripple effect and contribute to a culture of health in the community that has sustainability.

“Individual employers can potentially impact the health of the region,” said RJG’s Storms. “Exposure through media, word of mouth … might make other employers step their game up and do similar things to invest in the wellness of their team members.”

Amy Lane is a freelance journalist and former reporter for Crain’s Detroit Business, where she covered business, state government, energy and utilities for nearly 25 years.