On the cutting edge of employee wellness

Hypertherm Inc., the Hanover-based manufacturer of metal and fiber laser cutting systems, started more than 40 years ago in a two-car garage. Today, the company is one of New Hampshire’s largest, employing nearly 1,300 people in 24 different countries.Recognized as one of the best places to work in the Granite State, Hypertherm’s mission includes providing for the wellbeing of its associates, communities and the environment. Consistent with its core values, Hypertherm has been at the forefront of developing an effective workplace wellness program that meets the needs of its diverse workforce for several years.A more formalized program was launched with the opening of the Hypertherm Associates Wellness Center, in partnership with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in 2009 (see “Hypertherm launches major wellness initiative,” March 13-26, 2009, NHBR). Hypertherm plans to build another wellness center with a fitness center, teaching room and exam rooms in its new 150,000-square-foot facility, scheduled to open in Lebanon in September 2012.Earlier this year, the company hired its first dedicated wellness program manager, Patti Friedman, to focus on coordinating programs that encourage participation by associates worldwide.Patti Friedman and Deane Ilukowicz, vice president of human resources, share best practices and insights about implementing workplace wellness programs in companies of all sizes.Ilukowicz explained why Hypertherm started its program: “It is not only part of our mission to foster wellbeing for our associates, a healthier workforce means increased productivity and decreased health care costs. One-third of our company is associate-owned and we are self-insured, so it’s a win-win when we can improve the health of our associates, reduce costs and increase profitability.”Meeting associate needsWhile there are many important strategies, Patti Friedman explained that their annual associate health risk assessment is a core element to building a worksite wellness program that meets the needs of their associates.”The data from the assessment and biometric screenings helps us build our programs and focus areas for our wellness program. Over the past few years, we’ve worked on increasing participation by educating our associates about how we use the data and adding incentives for participation.”In 2009, Hypertherm had 11 percent associate participation in the assessment. When the company added a $260 per year wellness credit, participation went up to 60 percent. They are adding more incentives this year and hope to achieve 75 percent participation.The data garnered from the annual assessment helps determine the type of programs and environmental and policy changes that would have the most impact on the health and wellness of associates.Based on the data, programs encouraging smoking cessation, weight loss and increased physical activity are a focus for the company, which is also working to make it easier for associates to eat better by providing healthier choices in vending machines and the cafeteria.”We communicate the wellness message early, often and through multiple channels – from emails to monitors in the facilities. But, I find it most effective to communicate one-on-one as often as possible,” said Friedman.With three shifts and associates around the world, that’s no easy task, and Friedman often finds herself holding meetings late at night or early in the morning to accommodate different shifts and time zones.Many associates champion Hypertherm’s wellness philosophy. Domestically, Hypertherm’s wellness committee includes 15 associates who meet monthly and organize programs such as moonlit snowshoe walks, mountain bike outings, hiking trips and hockey games.The International Wellness Committee meets by phone less frequently, but all associates worldwide participate in several programs, including the 10,000 Steps Challenge.When it comes to engaging associates in the wellness program, Ilukowicz advised, “Recognize, reward and incent.”She explained that providing incentives does not have to cost a company very much. One of the most popular incentives at Hypertherm are ‘Wellness Day’ raffles that give winning associates extra days off.Still, Hypertherm, like many companies, has found some associates are wary of participating in biometric screenings as part of the health risk assessment, primarily because they worry about how the data will be used.Assuring associates that the data is compiled by a third party for company-wide (as opposed to individual) results has helped dissuade the concerns.An unexpected challenge that Hypertherm encountered was that some wellness concepts just don’t translate culturally or linguistically from country to country.Ilukowicz cautioned that companies should not expect an instant return on investment with a workplace wellness program. She said companies should first determine associate needs and wants, and take inventory of their current wellness programs. Once that first step is complete, companies can then work to engage associates through communication, collaboration and the addition of incentives. Building programs and a workplace environment that support wellness will keep it sustainable.”It takes time to change behavior and establish trust in a program,” said Ilukowicz. “The return on investment is definitely there, it just takes time.”Terry Johnson is director of Healthy Eating Active Living NH, or HEAL NH. For more information and resources for businesses starting a workplace wellness program, contact him at 603-415-4273 or email TJohnson@healthynh.com.