The strength of a business relies on its bottom line, and it takes a productive and engaged workforce to help meet those financial goals, particularly for a client-focused organization, such as EPIC, an employee benefits brokerage firm in Petaluma, Calif. With this in mind, EPIC has implemented a wellness program to improve its employees’ health and has watched it grow and positively influence employees’ lives, says Mary Smith, the firm’s executive vice president of human resources.

“If our employees are healthy and happy, then our clients are happy,” Smith says. “Our employees feel better about themselves when they’re healthy, and they’re going to project that positive attitude onto our clients, as well. There’s a lot of interaction between our employees and clients, so it really ends up hitting the bottom line.”

The North Bay Business Journal recently recognized EPIC as one of the region’s healthiest companies. Winners were chosen based on the scope and effectiveness of their wellness initiatives. Assessments were based on how the program helped control employer health care costs and produce measurable improvements in employee morale and productivity.

EPIC’s wellness program centers on health-related challenges that encourage employees to make lifestyle changes, and those who participate receive points that are applied as discounts to their health premiums. These challenges include everything from weight loss to step counts and even going in for dental exams. While these challenges may not sound difficult, they are attainable goals for all employees, which is what makes the program so effective, Smith says.

To promote its wellness program, EPIC relies on a variety of communication methods, such as email, webinars, and lunch and learns, but Smith finds that word of mouth among employees is the most effective tool, especially when it comes from management. From the start, EPIC’s senior leadership has been on board with endorsing employee wellness, which Smith believes is crucial for success. When employees see that EPIC’s senior leaders are active in wellness efforts, it gives the program credibility, ingrains a healthy lifestyle into the corporate culture and leads to improved employee health. In fact, a study by human resources firm Mercer finds 66% of employers demonstrating strong wellness support from leadership experience reduced employee health risks as opposed to only 26% of employers with little or no management support.

“When employees see their senior leaders participating, it shows them how much those leaders care about their own health choices and how it affects the company,” Smith says.

Despite support from senior leadership, getting employees to buy into the wellness program has been challenging, Smith says. “We have to show them what they can get out of the program, and that takes consistency,” she says. “When we first started our wellness program, people didn’t know about it, and they weren’t used to it. We’ve been consistent with our communication efforts to continually motivate our employees however we can and make it exciting for them. Every few months, we offer new challenges to keep the program fresh and employees interested.”

For an added level of support and leadership, EPIC has appointed wellness champions to organize and encourage employees at each office. With multiple locations, a wellness champion is important because he or she provides local support and ensures the corporate dedication to healthy living isn’t lost outside of its main office. This also creates a feeling of accountability and camaraderie because employees are proactive in helping each other stay on board with the program’s challenges.

“One of our biggest promoters is our employees themselves,” Smith says. “They like challenging each other, and it’s improved the camaraderie among all offices. One of our challenges is even to engage a friend in our wellness program.”

By the numbers

Realizing the return on investment for wellness programs takes a few years, and EPIC is still collecting data on its claims experience, but some improvements are already taking place, Smith says. In 2013, the firm experienced a 1.5% decrease in its highest risk factors for employees, compared to less than 1% three years ago. Participation is also on the rise. When EPIC first initiated its wellness program, 62% of employees participated. That number is now up to 69%, and EPIC’s goal for the near future is to increase the participation rate to 75%.

“Many people don’t even know they have certain health issues going on,” Smith says. “The more they understand and buy into the program, the more they talk about it, share their stories and become engaged.”

Smith also anticipates that EPIC’s wellness program will help the company from a cultural standpoint over time, particularly when it comes to turnover. Offering a wellness program makes employees feel valued, and they see that their employer has their best interests in mind.

“Workplace culture sets the tone for employees, and the fact that we integrate and support a healthy work environment keeps our employees motivated and engaged,” Smith says.

EPIC also uses its wellness program as a recruiting tool, Smith says. There is no cost to the employee to participate, and it provides prospective employees with an avenue to save on their health premiums.

Given the success Epic has seen so far, Smith is confident in the program’s future. Wellness is becoming rooted in EPIC’s culture, and employees are leading healthier lifestyles and becoming more engaged, she says.

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