By modernizing its health plan design, outreach and global health strategy, Air Liquide, the world leader in gasses for industry, health and the environment, has made significant strides in wellness, both across the United States and with an eye on expansion globally.

The company already had an existing emphasis on safety, so it was only natural for Air Liquide's director of benefits, Sheri Virani, to expand her efforts to emphasize wellness.

"We have an existing culture of safety. Safety comes first. ... and this is a language that most of our employees understand, as well as our leaders," she says.

Since the company already incorporated safety imperatives into managers' daily communication, it had the infrastructure to easily introduce wellness as an offshoot. For example, during town hall and group meetings, leaders had always detailed safety numbers to employees; now, they are proactive and transparently share the health status of the population.

"We're trying to infiltrate [wellness education] along the same mechanisms that we've built already for safety [education]," adds Virani. Thus, wherever the company has safety messaging, it adds a wellness component, and vice versa. It added safety tips to its benefits mobile app, and expanded its health fairs into health and safety fairs.

In the past, health fairs weren't consistent or even held annually. Now, in locations with many employees, Air Liquide has started hosting the health fair on weekends at an offsite location, which allows employees to bring their families. Last year, Houston's health and safety fair was held in Minute Maid ballpark, and almost 50% of employees attended with their families. The fair offered biometric screenings, demonstrated how diseases like diabetes could affect safety numbers, and encouraged one-on-one discussions between vendors and attendees. To encourage interaction, participants could build a Lego tower using each vendor's color piece of Lego and then be entered into a raffle for prizes.


Stop and think is first step

Currently, Virani's goal for the wellness program is to encourage the 4,700 U.S. employees and their families - they cover about 11,000 total lives - to consider healthy decisions as part of their daily routine. For example, to entice healthier nutritional choices, they replaced traditional vending machines with open market areas that provide healthier options employees can easily purchase with a self-checkout machine.

Virani says Air Liquide's wellness initiative's greatest achievement has been encouraging people to think about healthy decisions they can make in their daily lives, such as taking the stairs, parking farther away from the office, eating healthy foods and bringing wellness home. Employees get excited about the health fairs now; Virani says they have never had this level of enthusiasm and health consciousness before.

"We've gotten people to stop and think of where they want to eat lunch. And that is where it starts," she says.

To introduce major wellness initiatives, Virani and her team took a page from marketing to change the way benefits at the company are perceived. They are launching three movie trailers to build excitement for their upcoming health challenge, active enrollment and the addition of HSAs to their CDHP. By using the same formula as Hollywood blockbuster films, they are "getting people excited" with a sneak peek into the changes. To build interest in wellness programs last year, an entity president dressed up as Richard Simmons and led an exercise class.

"We're a very paternalistic culture, no different from many large U.S. companies, but when we're bringing on a large change we like to give fair warning first," says Virani of their communication campaign. For example, they've opened a hotline for employees to discuss the introduction of a health savings account with advocates who can talk them through the change. Virani also introduced a custom modeler so participants can compare last year's health care costs with forecasted costs for the upcoming year.


'Not an afterthought'

Virani acknowledges that "cost is a huge driver" for making health plan design and wellness program decisions. However, she adds that while "ROI is definitely a component, if it's your driving component you're going to miss some very good opportunities. Going back to the basics of engagement, communication and education is new to the benefits world, but it is a key component."

She's most encouraged that not only are participants taking their health benefits and wellness initiatives seriously, but also that wellness is "not an afterthought to our leaders. It's a business concern, just like making a profit," she explains. "Wellness plays a role in the new plan design. Wellness is a part of our mission, so whatever we consider, we consider through the eye of wellness."

For the first time in over 17 years, the company will host an active open enrollment, so employees must be informed consumers to decide what health plan is best for them and their families.

"There is a huge percentage of our population that just rolls over their benefits and life-changes every year," Virani says. This year the active enrollment will force them to look at different plans and make active decisions if they want to change plans.

Virani strives to highlight benefits and wellness decisions in employees' minds and give them an elevated presence in company culture. "The best compliment I've received recently is, 'Sheri, you've taken us from 1993 to the current year,'" she says about the company's success so far.


War on chronic conditions

To heighten awareness of chronic diseases, each year Virani wages war against a few chronic conditions or underlying conditions that are prevalent across Air Liquide's population. For example, the company has partnered with UnitedHealthcare to offer its diabetes management program.

"It becomes difficult if you try to tackle everything all at once," she explains. "We're going to tackle it one [chronic condition] at a time."

Virani also hopes to increase wellness visibility at Air Liquide's global operations. "We're in the baby steps of this program," she says, adding they've received interest in carrying over U.S. wellness resources and ideas to other locations, including ones in France, Australia, Singapore and Mexico. The company's branch in Mexico already uses some of the U.S. communications materials for wellness, and it will host its first health fair in Mexico this year.

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