This article is the fifth in EBN's year-long BeneFIT Success series, which chronicles employers and employees in their individual and organizational wellness triumphs. The first four installments are available at ebn.benefitnews.com, keywords "benefit success series."

When the waistlines of both your employee population and your corporate medical costs are shrinking, people tend to take notice. And many eyes have been watching such a slimming down effect taking shape at the Principal Financial Group year after year.

At its Des Moines headquarters and at locations across the nation and internationally, Principal employees are leaving sedentary pasts in the rear view and driving toward a healthier lifestyle that is reaping rewards personally and professionally.

The company has a rich history of promoting health, being recognized with the Wellness Councils of America Platinum Well Workplace award three times. Principal hired its first wellness director more than 20 years ago at a time when such a position was barely on the radar for most organizations.

From nutrition information to health screenings to fitness facilities, the resources at the fingertips of Principal's 14,000 employees are top of the line. But it takes a dedicated workforce to take a wellness program to the next level. And with an assist from a popular reality show, Principal Financial's wellness strategy has recently innovated to another level.

 

People are taking ownership

Inspired by NBC's hit television show, "The Biggest Loser," Principal launched its inaugural Healthy Weight Challenge in 2010. This initiative would feature 12 select employees who would agree to embrace a lifestyle change and share their stories and journeys throughout the organization.

"The Biggest Loser" was a bit of a springboard of the design. People like to see other peopleís stories," says Polly Heinen, benefits manager of health and productivity and work/life at the Principal Financial. "We are showing real employees making real life changes."

Those employees chosen to participate in the program would be featured in workshops, online blogs and various other corporate marketing efforts to promote a healthy lifestyle. Though this tailored training came with a spotlight, the response from Principal's workforce was strong.

"Each candidate had to submit an essay with their application, and we had an overwhelming number of applications to the program," says Nicole Mills, team lead in Principal Financial's health and productivity department. "People want to strive toward goals. It's their change to make, and people are taking ownership."

Among the many interested candidates, eight employees from the headquarters in Des Moines and four from other office locations were selected to be featured in the Challenge.

They were thrown right into the fray with a nine-week jump-start program that focused on the basics of fitness and nutrition. The employees had twice-weekly appointments with a personal trainer and were required to work out one or two times each week on their own. Principal also provided a registered dietician to strike the appropriate eating balance during the course of the nine-month program.

All of this came with the knowledge that their progress, whether positive or negative, would be tracked and featured companywide. While this might translated into some trepidation, the participating employees saw it in a different light.

"When I saw what the company was offering, it felt like a great opportunity," says Karen Bavender, one of the participating employees. "It was a time when I welcomed public accountability and needed somebody who could give me a road map. It was not surprising that Principal would do this; they care about helping people get healthy."

"I was so thrilled when I got in," notes Val Bowen, another Challenge participant. "I kind of like the spotlight, so I'm OK with it. I kept thinking that if someone sees me and asks about the program, that I could help and inspire others."

With health issues that included high blood pressure, at-risk cholesterol levels and general weight concerns, the Challenge group was ready to take advantage of the tools that Principal Financial had at its disposal.

 

Slow but steady progress

Now that they had been selected to the group, Bavender, Bowen and their colleagues had to put their preconceived notions about attaining a healthy lifestyle aside and tackle their new lives head on.

"I am in my mid-40s and my weight had been creeping up every year," recalls Bavender. "I had tried losing weight and dieting before and couldn't do it and found that frustrating. But it was never for me about losing lots of weight."

Those words are music to the ears of the executives at Principal Financial, who stressed that this was not a quick-fix solution and results were not going to resemble the weekly weight loss totals of contestants on "The Biggest Loser."

"We took an approach to be conservative with losing weight. We didn't want to pinpoint people or make them concerned about their weight," Heinen says. "We try to take the legwork out of it and stress that little things over time make a big difference in the long run. We are showing real employees making real life changes."

Many of those changes are driven by some of Principal Financial's onsite health screenings that diagnose issues that could turn into chronic concerns. The company's overall wellness strategy is to reverse the sedentary nature of its employee base, emphasizing that physical activity can help turn the tide with at-risk conditions.

After shrugging off their fears - Bavender says she had never really exercised, for example - the Challenge group began their nine-month journey. They quickly found camaraderie among each other and swelling support from workers across the company.

"It's a grassroots movement of people," Mills says. "People [across the company] are forming their own little subgroups. As a result of lifestyle changes, employees are seeing amazing results."

Some employees have adopted such goals as walking up and down 66 flights of stairs, tackling triathlons and simply adopting healthier eating habits.

The results have paid off in terms of not only weight loss, but reductions in body mass index. Mills notes that a flattening out of BMIs among the 12 participating employees is a new trend at the company.

"We've learned that weight loss isn't the only goal," says Bowen, who had been with the company just one month when she began the program. "It became about strength and body fat composition. I do feel like I have more energy. I was surprised this was available because I had never been with a company that cared so much."

Bavender celebrates a 50-point reduction in her cholesterol level as a result of the program. And she is witnessing a three-year decline in her health-related age as measured by the Challenge. Afternoon workouts at Principal's onsite gym are one of the main perks she has taken advantage of during the training. The company also offers fitness center discounts for employees not based at its Des Moines headquarters.

"The scale went down some for me, but I've lost it fairly slowly and feel good about that," Bavender says. "I definitely have more energy and tackle tasks better in the afternoon at work."

The success that Bowen, Bavender and the other Challenge participants have realized are testament to Principal's strategy. The group has lost an impressive 650 pounds over the past nine months.

For individuals with full-time jobs, family responsibilities and everyday life, this is a realistic weight loss goal achieved.

"There are a variety of ways we target, and the biggest part of treatment is integration," Heinen says. "We're able to flag certain people so they get pointed in the right direction. We want to be more assertive but not aggressive, creating a culture to engage people."

That engagement has translated into huge cost savings for Principal. Over a six-year span, the company saved $9 million in employee medical plan costs as a result of its wellness initiatives. The company is betting this latest program will only add to its savings.

For 2011, Principal Financial extended the Healthy Wellness Challenge and has selected another lucky group to get the focused care and treatment enjoyed by the inaugural members. And the first group of 12 is not out of the picture. Aside from continuing to work out together since the program ended in December, they will also each be a sponsoring mentor to the incoming class.

"I am very excited about being a mentor because it will have a benefit for me and continue to make me accountable," Bavender says. "We are going to have monthly talks about what is going on, and I'm going to help [her mentee] balance this."

Bowen says she has reached out to a lot of people and let them know about her unique opportunity at her employer. She receives quite a few comments about how "amazing" it is. She also has her eyes set on running the 5K race Principal is sponsoring this fall.

Countless other employees at Principal have been inspired by the Challenge, with more than 1,200 workers registered for the company's "Do It Yourself" program to take on a healthier lifestyle of their own volition with help from the resources at Principal.

"Our program has become more targeted to focus on our biggest opportunities, and we've been fortunate to have had a long line of CEOs who support it," Heinen says. "As the wellness industry evolves, we have to tie it back into the business program. Year after year, we can see how much impact is has on employee engagement, productivity and retention."

Kevin Sweeney, a former EBN associate editor, is a freelance writer based in New Brunswick, Md.


U.S. employers lauded for promoting healthy living

The National Business Group on Health recently honored 48 employers for their commitment to healthy living. Platinum winners of the 2011 Best Employers for Healthy Lifestyles include:

  • Aetna
  • Baptist Health South Florida
  • Cardinal Health* Cerner Corporation
  • Cigna
  • Dell Inc.
  • Hewlett-Packard Company
  • IBM
  • Intel Corporation
  • Lowe's* Medtronic
  • Michelin North America
  • Pitney Bowes
  • Prudential Financial
  • Quest Diagnostics
  • State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance Co.
  • Union Pacific Railroad
  • UnitedHealth Group
  • University of Pittsburgh Medical Center/UPMC Health Plan
  • Visant Corporation

For the complete list, including gold winners, visit www.businessgrouphealth.org/bestemployers.

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