While coastal enclaves like Silicon Valley have long had a reputation for progressive wellness programs and fun, rewarding work perks, notions of wellness and employee engagement are still gaining ground in the Midwest. That makes for a greenfield of opportunity for benefit brokers like St. Louis, Mo.-based Cornerstone Insurance.

Foreseeing the importance of wellness early on, Cornerstone hired its own full-time wellness director and set out not just to offer wellness programming as a value-add to its mostly Midwestern clients, but also to serve as a regional poster child for how a commitment to wellness can transform a company and its culture from the inside out.

From left: The Cornerstone Insurance Group’s Richard Steinbaum, managing partner; Cody Wilson, managing partner; Gina Starnes, director of wellness
From left: The Cornerstone Insurance Group’s Richard Steinbaum, managing partner; Cody Wilson, managing partner; Gina Starnes, director of wellness
Ryan Nicholson

“We’ve really recognized the importance of what wellness does and what it can do for an employee population,” says Richard Steinbaum, a managing partner of Cornerstone, which was established as the outcome of agency mergers in 2005.

Steinbaum’s confidence is bolstered by research indicating that employers are beginning to look beyond healthcare cost savings to evaluate the success of their workplace wellness programs. Half of employers are using at least one “value-on-investment” measure to track their success, according to a recent survey by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans. These include employee engagement (30% of respondents), turnover (22%), absenteeism (18%), productivity (17%) and recruitment and referral rates (13%).

As part of this shift, employers are shying away from taking a punitive approach in favor of “feel good” programming that, for example, supports emotional health. “We’re seeing a lot [of activity] around emotional health and reducing its stigma,” reports Carrie Greene, general manager of wellness solutions provider Interactive Health. “Employers are trying to introduce that into their wellness strategy instead of just employee assistance programs.”

All this is reflected at Cornerstone, which, in 2011, hired Gina Starnes as its full-time wellness director. The first company she set out to transform was her new employer.

“Our goal was to serve as an example of health and wellness for our client companies and then to be their resource [in these areas],” says Starnes, a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in nutrition and a bachelor’s degree in exercise physiology.

The program Starnes created for Cornerstone’s employees was designed to instill a workplace culture that supports each individual’s personal healthy lifestyle choices. To help engage the workforce, she used gamification.

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“We’ve really recognized the importance of what wellness does and what it can do for an employee population."

One of the first fitness challenges she held for the company, for instance, was a walking challenge that mirrored the route of the Olympic torch during the 2012 summer games in London. Starnes divided the employees into teams and had each employee wear a pedometer. Their steps were logged on a map of the United Kingdom.

More than 50 of the agency’s 63 employees at the time participated in the challenge. The top walkers received a gift card and shoes spray-painted gold, silver or bronze by Starnes. Later, she shared the concept with Cornerstone’s clients, and several of them took up the idea and involved their employees in similar exercises.

Year-round approach

Fitness challenges are but one element of a year-round wellness strategy at Cornerstone, which has grown since 2012 to more than 100 employees at three Midwest locations, including St. Louis, Overland Park, Kan., and Glen Carbon, Ill.

The year-round approach, which Starnes also uses with clients, is based on a set of four quarterly wellness plans. Each quarter, she organizes Cornerstone’s employees around a specific wellness theme.

The year begins with a focus on nutrition, and Starnes holds a luncheon at which employees learn about breaking bad habits to coincide with their New Year’s resolutions. In the spring, when the weather turns warmer, the focus shifts to fitness, and Starnes rolls out the firm’s now annual walking challenge.

The agency’s third-quarter wellness plan addresses life balance. Activities include onsite chair massages and education on topics such as sleep and time management.

The last three months of the year are devoted to prevention, including flu shots and annual biometric screenings. As the winter holidays commence, Starnes kicks off her “maintain don’t gain” campaign with tips for maintaining a healthy lifestyle during the holiday season.

“It’s always been our philosophy to reinvest in our company,” Steinbaum says of the firm’s wellness program. “The need is there and we expand where necessary.”

The complete package

The role model approach has paid dividends for the agency.

A couple of years ago, the Lohr Distributorship Co. began looking for a benefits brokerage with a wellness solution. When it learned about Cornerstone and its dedicated wellness director, it was intrigued.

But Lohr wasn’t just impressed with Starnes and Cornerstone’s wellness programming, according to Stacy Brackett, human resources administrator for the St. Louis-based beer, wine and spirits distributor. After discussions with the agency, she says, Lohr decided to use Cornerstone for its other insurance and HR outsourcing needs as well.

“We’ve been extremely happy across the board with everything that Cornerstone has done,” Brackett enthuses. In addition to wellness and benefits administration, the agency handles Lohr’s new hire enrollments and reporting requirements under the Affordable Care Act. It has even rewritten portions of the company’s handbook.

“Our other broker wasn’t doing any of these things,” Brackett says.

But it has been Cornerstone’s wellness program that has really excited Lohr and its 175 full- and part-time employees.

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“Cornerstone helped us do our first health and wellness fair,” Brackett recalls, which included biometric screenings for employees and showcased about five or six providers of healthy living-related services. Says Brackett, “It was a huge success and employees really liked it.”

Other activities have included quarterly “lunch and learn” meetings covering topics such as nutrition and fitness, and fruit baskets that Lohr provides to its employees every Monday. A spring walking challenge is also under consideration.

All this has rubbed off on the distributor’s workforce.

“There was an event that our sales reps would hold on a regular basis to which they would always bring donuts,” Brackett says. “But now they’ve decided to bring in fruit. The culture is changing.”

Tailored to fit

Part of Cornerstone’s success stems from its understanding that, when it comes to wellness, one size doesn’t fit all. “We don’t have a can-in-the box plan for our clients,” says Starnes.

After engaging with a client, Cornerstone evaluates what programs will reflect the company’s culture and tailors its wellness offerings to meet the client’s needs. Of Starnes, Steinbaum says, “She’ll go out and meet with clients to gauge their interest and how they want to approach wellness.”

Among the offerings Starnes has created are a series of lunch-and-learn programs, covering topics such as better eating habits and healthy cooking; seven- or eight-week weight management programs, which include meal plans and calorie tracking, and use of a mobile app to simplify the process.

“We do weigh-ins. We go over food logs,” Starnes says.

Because a major component of the weight management program is the support of a network and a buddy system, a minimum of 25 people is required to participate. For that reason, it’s better suited to a mid- to large-size employer that’s more likely to have at least 25 employees willing to commit to the challenge. This is an example of what Starnes means when she says Cornerstone offers different wellness solutions to meet different clients’ needs.

Starnes will consult with and design programs for Cornerstone clients free of charge, but the client must cover the costs of undertaking the program, including prizes, equipment and services such as biometric screenings.

The clients don’t seem to mind. “We’re one of only a few firms in town that has a dedicated resource,” Steinbaum says. “Our clients have found it a very nice value-add.”

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