When I ask him what he wanted to be when he grew up, David Kasiarz, senior vice president of global compensation and benefits at American Express, replies without hesitation, "a pediatrician."

And although benefits is certainly a long way from medicine, there's likely no benefits professional that would argue that Kasiarz still ended up in a caring profession. A genuine spirit of caring for the well-being of others is the only way to play a daily part in maintaining the health, financial security and overall well-being of others, as Kasiarz does for AmEx's employees and their families across the globe. It's that caring spirit and the exemplary results that it yields that has won Kasiarz EBN's 2011 Benefits Professional of the Year.

Kasiarz's heart for seeking the well-being of others was evident right from the start of his career. With his newly acquired master's in psychology, Kasiarz's first job following graduate school was in a homeless shelter in Philadelphia on a grant for the Department of Public Welfare. "What I saw was that nobody really cared for the people that worked there - no one was their advocate," he recalls. "So, that made me want to go [back] to school so that I could become more of a policymaker - someone that created policies, not execute policies I didn't think were fair."

Keeping that goal in mind, Kasiarz returned to graduate school and received at PhD. in health policy. Armed with his new degree and new mindset, it wasn't long before Kasiarz found a position at PepsiCo., "where I worked in their Pizza Hut restaurant business as the head of hourly benefits and compensation. My job was to develop a benefits strategy for our hourly workforce."

Able to be the advocate for those employees that he wished he could have been for those at the Philadelphia shelter, Kasiarz and his team were able to lead PepsiCo in the early 1990s to be one of the first employers to offer health benefits to hourly employees.


The growing impact of wellness

Toward the end of his 18-year tenure at PepsiCo, Kasiarz says he began "to understand the impact wellness could have on employee productivity - that's when I first saw not only the impact [wellness could have on] the business in a positive way but employees in a positive way."

The new focus led him to American Express in 2008, "because they were interested in doing more [with wellness]," but Kasiarz had his work cut out for him - joining a financial services firm following the nation's second largest economic collapse with an aim to enhance wellness programs.

Still, staying true to being an employee advocate, he saw a way to make wellness remain a priority at American Express, despite the recession. "In the midst of the financial crisis, every company was squeezing tighter to make more from less, but we saw we had an opportunity to focus and be an advocate for our employees - to keep our employees, make them feel like they were an important part of getting us through the tough financial times," he says. "And [we believed] one of the best ways to do that was to figure out a way to make strategic investments in the health of our employees and their families."

To that end, Kasiarz and his team launched Healthy Living, the AmEx wellness program, which encourages employees to "pay attention to prevention," "know your numbers" and "rally your resources." These simple strategic planks are reinforced with a comprehensive array of wellness offerings tailored to work with country-specific needs and opportunities across the globe.

"It's too easy to pass along costs to employees, reduce benefits and create obstacles to care," Kasiarz says. "What we're trying to do is give employees greater access to care, when they need it and even better when they don't need it."

He continues: "People often have the misconception about going to the doctor when you're sick and not when you're well. So, we wanted to change people's mindset to prevention as being just as important if not more important than treatment. So we needed to address the things that keep people from doing that - and those things are cost and access. We wanted to make sure we eliminated barriers - reduce the costs of seeking care when you need it - and reinvested in our seven medical clinics by offering physicals and other services onsite. Then we wanted to increase access by expanding the hours."

Open to employees only, American Express' Healthy Living Wellness Centers, located across seven AmEx sites nationally - "from Florida to Phoenix," as Kasiarz says - are run by occupational health nurses, and offer free preventive health service like physicals, OB-GYN exams and mammography. The centers also feature onsite pharmacists, dermatologists, sports physicians and pediatricians to speak to expectant parents about infant care.

Kasiarz says the company views the centers "as a storefront for our wellness strategy ... and the nurses are our ambassadors to demystify and explain benefits of good health."

Building on the strength of the wellness centers, Kasiarz and his team this summer launched the "Prevention Pays" campaign - where employees who received free physicals during July and August were given $25 iTunes cards. Within one day, center appointments at several locations were booked for next three months. "It's a modest investment with a great upside both for the company and the employee," Kasiarz says.

Other Healthy Living investments have included reconfiguring cafeteria menus to offer more healthy alternatives at lower prices (they've been dubbed Healthy Living Cafes) and instituting Fresh Fruit Fridays, where employees are offered free fruit one day per week.

Kasiarz has now taken Healthy Living global, with recent launches in Canada, Mexico, Singapore and Argentina greeted with enthusiasm and will be supplemented with new Healthy Living programs in the coming months, including launches in the Scandinavian and Australian markets.


Encouraging 'Smart Saving'

However, Kasiarz's commitment to wellness goes beyond the physical realm. "On the retirement side, we recognize that wellness is both health wellness and financial wellness. So, we want to help employees get their physical health in order, but also their financial health in order and we have a number of programs and content to do that," he says.

Among them is AmEx's Smart Saving program, which helps employees make good decisions about their finances, from short-term budgeting and debt management to long-term financial planning and retirement saving. Employees across the country are taking advantage of Smart Saving's financial planning and support programs, including free will preparation, onsite financial counseling and College Coach services, which help employees plan for their children's and/or their own education - financial assistance, picking the right college, picking the right major, navigating the application process.

Although not specifically targeting retirement plan savings the program's results speak for themselves. In the months since Smart Saving was launched to U.S., participation and saving levels in the 401(k) plan have increased dramatically.


Recognition and rewards

Employee satisfaction also has increased significantly, thanks to American Express' rewards program, implemented by Kasiarz and his team.

"Recognition is one of the few things that's free but worth a fortune," he says. "We want to create a culture of health and wellness, but also a culture of appreciation."

RewardBlue, the company's rewards and recognition program, promotes a strong sense of internal pride and ignites employee engagement levels across the footprint of American Express globally. Through a points-based system, employees are empowered to recognize the efforts and the results of their colleagues. Leaders also can reward accomplishments and reinforce performance messages. RewardBlue has been met with accolades and excitement from leadership and employees alike and usage continues to grow rapidly.

"Our employees are always customer facing so we want to always remember to acknowledge their efforts," Kasiarz says. "The key mantra is praise efforts, reward results," he continues, adding that AmEx also is developing a service award, "so that the same way we celebrate loyalty among cardmembers, we reward loyalty among our employees."

To help curry that loyalty, Kasiarz and his team take care to seek employee feedback and solutions. AmEx's "We Heard You," feedback program, yielded important employee comments and even spawned new programs, including Fresh Fruit Fridays, he says. "Just little things like that make a big difference."


Words to lead by

The same could be said of Kasiarz's leadership model, which is just four simple words but continue to make a big difference for his team, American Express employees and the company's goals and objectives and the benefits profession at large.

"When we think about these programs, we think in terms of four things: Innovate, advocate, celebrate and dedicate," Kasiarz says. "Those are the things we try to look at when we develop [benefits] programs. Developing new content through innovation - we don't want to do what other people are doing; we want to do what our employees need. We want to advocate for them where it makes sense, celebrate their successes and dedicate ourselves to sustaining these programs in a way that they'll continue to drive a high level of engagement." Indeed, words to lead by.

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