When wellness efforts are introduced, employers can either create a healthy culture among employees who are reaping the benefits — as seen in their lower health costs — or miss the ball entirely. And with the expected employer wellness boom because of upcoming penalties and fees associated with the Affordable Care Act, benefit managers are swooning over the positives of programs that target employee well-being. In this three-part series, EBN profiles three companies with winning wellness programs. Up first: financial services firm Robert W. Baird.

Lisa Mrozinski, total rewards manager of benefits at Robert W. Baird, an employee-owned financial services company, says that “not being afraid of change” is a mantra that benefit leaders ought to follow.

“We’ve had a couple of programs that haven’t been that great, and you just have to find what works,” Mrozinski explains.

Baird has a rich 95-year history of providing financial advice and services to its clients and being a best place to work for its associates, earning it ninth spot on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work for in 2014. It has been on the magazine’s national rankings since 2004, which was right around the same time it started its first wellness program. “Back in 2004, we were in the double digits for health care costs increases, and now we’re in the single digits,” she says.

Mrozinski explains that the company decided to offer biometric screening and health assessments at that point, but only 45% of Baird’s associates and domestic partners or spouses participated. She says the program “fell flat” because it didn’t have any clear messaging or targeted strategy related to wellness, so Baird went back to the drawing board. Approximately two years later, Baird decided to take a less conventional approach to bump up participation and keep their more than 2,900 associates engaged.

Also see:10 ways to design a better wellness incentive program

“When we did the program in 2004, we did more of a ‘carrot’ approach, in that people got an incentive for participating,” Mrozinski says. “And in 2006, we said the results aren’t what we wanted. And our culture is really something where that ‘stick’ will work a little bit better, so we decided to do a [premium] surcharge if people decided not to participate. … we really believed, from a strategic perspective, we needed the help of our associates for us to be able to control our health care costs, ”

And the strategic change bore fruit over time, according to Mrozinski, as Baird currently boasts more than 90% participation. The company offers a high-deductible health plan, with the help of health savings account to assist its associates. In addition to improving their health, employees have the opportunity to participate in the wellness effort to keep their own costs down.

“I think a lot of programs right now are participation-based, but I think some are moving to these outcomes-based programs,” Mrozinski notes. “We’ve been doing this for two years, and we continue to see the health risks of our associates improve, and we’re seeing very minimal health care costs increases year over year.”

Mrozinski adds that senior management support and the volunteer support of the nearly 100 wellness champions have been critical.

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