When Dawn Cacciotti joined the National Restaurant Association in 2010 as its senior vice president of human resources, she had her work cut out for her. She quickly learned that the organization — a trade association for the nation’s restaurant industry — had been through tremendous change; there was a lack of trust, and employees felt the organization’s direction was unclear.

She set course on a three-year plan to launch a wellness program, increase employee engagement and boost participation in the organization’s 401(k) plan, the results of which have earned her EBN’s 2014 Judges’ Choice Benny Award. 

As one of her first tasks, Cacciotti created a confidential engagement survey containing more than 100 questions on a wide range of topics, including culture, benefits, compensation, communication, training and job satisfaction.

The survey contained many yes or no questions along with several open-ended questions such as: If you had three wishes to make any changes in the organization, what would they be?

“I had pages and pages of things that needed to be addressed, so I had to obviously prioritize what it is that we were actually going to work on,” says Cacciotti. “I’m that type of person. If I make a commitment, I’m going to do it.”

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While reviewing the responses, it became clear that employee wellness and engagement couldn’t be addressed strictly from a physical health perspective. Cacciotti proceeded to create a program that centered on three pillars — financial, physical and emotional — that would provide more opportunities, choices and education to NRA employees.

In partnership with Orriant and United Healthcare, Cacciotti launched a voluntary biometic screening program. Following the setting of an initial baseline, if employees fall below that baseline, they are set up with a wellness coach to help set nutritional and fitness goals. The progress is tracked throughout the year, and another biometric test is done a year later. Eighty percent of employees now participate in the wellness program.

Since initiating the program, 62% of employees say they’ve increased their physical fitness routines, employees’ overall health age has dropped by 2.2 years, and among those rated “critical” in their initial screening, all have made great strides to get out of that red zone, says Cacciotti.

“As an organization, having healthier people [means] your productivity improves, your medical costs go down. … We’re down again on all our costs for this quarter as compared to last year,” she says. “The health of our organization is improving.”

Another of Cacciotti’s top concerns was the lack of participation in the organization’s 401(k) program, especially given the 100% employer match on the first 6% of employee contributions.

“A lot of times people get used to it [401(k) plan] just being there. When you don’t have any education or follow up, people think other organizations just do it,” Cacciotti says.

She partnered with PNC Bank and Merrill Lynch to provide financial literacy classes for employees on everything from women and investing to saving for college.

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“People will not sometimes understand today what it is that we’re doing for them. But it’s years from now, when they look back and they have that nest egg, and they retire and they’re healthy physically and have the money to retire, and they’re emotionally secure in their relationships [that] they’re going to think about what we did for them. You get thank-you’s years later,” she says.

Although she says it is loads of work, the rewards are great. “It’s something you can look back on and say, ‘Wow, I had a large impact on people’s lives,’” she says.

As a result of her efforts, participation in the 401(k) plan has increased by 15%.

In addition to the multiple education programs, Cacciotti launched a wellness committee made up of employees throughout the organization.

“It’s important for organizations to make it [wellness] become part of the culture. It’s not an HR thing. It truly has to be something that HR helps promote and helps to drive that culture,” she says.

If employees are involved in developing the wellness program themselves through sitting on the committee, they are much more likely to participate and encourage their colleagues to do so as well, believes Cacciotti, while noting the ideas to have come out of the group: massage days, healthy cooking lessons, a Weight Watchers group.

Through her perseverance, Cacciotti’s approach in the first three years of her tenure has helped create monumental change. Overall engagement scores have increased by 45%, and turnover has dropped to below 15%.

“It helped change the lives of our people, and it solidified for me how important an effective human resources people strategy is to achieving the overall results of each and every organization,” she says.

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