Raymond Eames knows the benefits of walking firsthand. After two back surgeries, Eames discovered walking when he was no longer able to run or jog due to the strain on his legs and back.

"I was able to see the weight that I lost and how much better I felt" after walking regularly, says Eames, the director of benefits at SKF USA Inc., a Lansdale, Pa.-based subsidiary of SKF Group, a global manufacturing company.

From his experience, he encouraged healthy and active lifestyles at the workplace through the SKF USA Care program. Eames is the winner of the 2012 Benny Award for Benefits Leadership in Health Care.

Eames, who is responsible for managing the health, welfare and retirement programs at SKF, knew that 75% of health care claims are related to preventable chronic disease and lifestyle choices. So he changed the health culture at the organization by creating an integrated wellness program, SKF USA Care, which combined the current biometric screening program with a walking program known as Walkingspree.

Walkingspree provided employees a pedometer to track their steps and an online portal to monitor progress, manage health goals and track companywide challenges. The program has become so ingrained within the culture that wearing pedometers has become a status symbol. Employees earn pedometers after taking 1 million steps in 200 days, accomplishing the Million Step Challenge.

In fact, Eames' successful engagement campaign for SKF USA Care drew in more than 80% of SKF employees, of which 37% of the total eligible employees were union employees. Now in its third year, the program continues strong with well over 60% active participation, and now includes spouses.

"I get energized by giving people the tools and opportunities [to succeed]. You can't change everyone, but you have to do your best. I've been more motivated because I feel I can really make a difference," Eames says.

Communication challenges have been Eames' biggest obstacle in spurring a workforce to be more active and in engaging employees, many of whom don't have access to the Internet at work.

"Our programs continue to evolve, but we along with many other companies, still struggle with communication. That's why we've found partners," says Eames.

A blood-drawing company, Interactive Health Solutions, visits the company locations annually to offer voluntary blood draws to employees. For 10 years, this resource has let helped "employees [bring] this information to their physicians to help manage their health," he explains.

Also, the Test on Demand program allows employees and spouses to go to a local lab in their community and get blood tests. Many of the tests are free to the employee, and some are voluntary, for which the company splits the cost with employees 50/50.

Eames initially promoted the company''s walking initiative with flyers. Despite many participants without access to the Internet at work, they were able to review their steps and activity at a home computer with a participating spouse.

The program sends two concise emails per week - one that focuses on "move smart," and the other on "eat smart." Though it was difficult to find the right medium to deliver these encouragement messages to employees, they were ultimately a huge success.

Participants especially love receiving the congratulatory email when they've taken 10,000 steps. In fact, according to the company's internal surveys, people were more motivated by this email encouragement recognizing their 10,000th step than by the prize rewards, a very unexpected finding.

"I think it has caused a lot of healthy competition," says Beth Murphy, benefits and payroll team member at SKF USA Inc. about the Walkingspree program.

Participants push to beat their individual numbers, and it has integrated into people's normal routine. On Mondays, colleagues compare how many steps they took over the weekend.

The healthy habits complement the yearly cholesterol, heart and diabetes testing by Interactive Health Solutions. Participants can see their successes in the walking program reflected in their health results.

"We try to focus on employee care and work on educating [around] the health and welfare of our employees," says explains Eames, citing one prong of their company's philosophy of care principles.

Murphy marvels at "how [the wellness program] has spidered out" in popularity across the SKF population under Eames' watch.

"At lunchtime, the doors open up, and it's as if everyone is walking during their lunch" break outside, says Murphy, who nominated Eames for the Benny award. Employees freely wear their pedometers, and have walking buddies and groups.

 

Program evolution

The Walkingspree program has evolved since the pilot program. When they rolled out the initiative to the entire company with great fanfare, they lost some pilot participants because the rewards were still awarded through a random drawing program.

That's why Eames changed the reward component this year for Flex employees (salaried and/or designated nonunion employees) to have individual targets each month to earn that credit back.

"We put together a healthy living credit program where they can earn cash back at the end of the year based upon monthly targets for walking, getting a wellness screening, or going to their physician and having them fill out a form," Eames says explains.

All employees have access to the wellness program, though incentive design varies between the Flex salaried and designated nonunion employees, who can earn up to $300 cash back, and other employees that can participate in random raffle drawings to reward their Walkingspree accomplishments.

"You have to evolve your program and make changes," Eames says. He adds that the goal is "to try to get [employees and spouses] to live a healthier lifestyle."

However, Eames advises, "Don't feel like you have to do everything at once. I think it's important not to get discouraged. Everyone is dealing with limited resources, so you want to focus on different initiatives and what you feel is important. Have a framework of what you might want to accomplish and work to roll that out over time."

You don't want to overload employees, Eames cautions, because they could get the wrong perception. He says: "Roll out [initiatives] in such a way that it could be communicated and managed well," Eames says.

He also suggests sponsors and benefits professionals find the best partners to roll out their programs. You need the right vendor to execute great ideas successfully in the long term, he says.

Eames wanted to encourage participants to strive for goals beyond achieving 1 million steps.

"It's not a [sprint] race, it's a marathon. It's about looking at your health on an ongoing basis," he says. "It's a daily commitment to living well. It's not an easy change," but the results from, and testimonials of, participants testify to the program''s success.

SKF employees now average 8,564 steps daily, well over the national average for office workers at 4,700 steps. A significant group of people at the company was sedentary, but many now report that they have maintained an active lifestyle.

 

Bottom line results

There's also good news for the bottom line: SKF USA Care posts an ROI of 9.38 to 1, according to the Physical Inactivity Cost Calculator. The wellness culture contributed to health care costs increasing only 1.4% in 2012, well below the 9.3% average increase for the previous three years.

However, for Eames, the greatest triumph from the health and wellness initiatives comes when a participant approaches him to share how this program changed their life.

"I don't think you go in trying to change people's lives," Eames says. "You give people the tools to help them manage their health. But when you hear people say that [the wellness program] was a life-changing moment, that's very significant and humbling at the same time."

Many employees and spouses have been able to eliminate maintenance medications, while others have become more active.

"If people continue [these activities] month after month, then they will hopefully continue for the rest of their life and live better because of that," Eames says.

Other impressive results for the wellness program include:

* 60% of participants say they feel healthier.

* 37% feel more productive.

* 12% take fewer sick days.

* 78% feel more positive about the company.

"With anything you do in life, you have to have passion," Eames says of his and the team's success. "There are legal requirements you need to follow, which can be cumbersome, but it's very important in benefits and HR to find those [issues] you can have compassion about and show your employees and others that you do care about them. I think this can energize you - that you can put programs in place that can make a difference in people's lives."

 

Program has ripple effect

A number of companies now offer this walking program or have improved one because they saw one of SKF's employees or spouses using the pedometers. These companies heard "employees commenting on how lucky [our employees] are because of how much our company cares about [them]," says Eames. He compares this progress to a pebble dropped in a pond that creates an ever-widening ripple. It takes one person to go first, and in turn, that inspires others to action.

Not only can the Walkingspree program expand among plan sponsors, but healthy behaviors also trickle down to employees' children, who learn from their parents'' habits. "You get the ball rolling, and hopefully it continues expanding," he adds.

"I don't consider myself an innovator," Eames says, adding that others have come before, but bringing these tools cost-free to employees is important.

Murphy urges fellow HR and benefits professionals to "tap his knowledge and steal his ideas." Learning the best practices and potential roadblocks from Eames and other successful pioneers can pave the way for wellness programs and healthy plan participants.

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