March 26, 2023

With over two years’ focus on elevated, pandemic-driven health and wellness efforts that were built upon long-existing programs, how are today’s healthiest employers improving upon the gains they’ve made? How can they drive additional returns, achieve greater employee engagement and retention, and remain a healthiest employer to the benefit of their people and their families, the company, and the communities in which they live and work?
In this Healthiest Employers panel discussion hosted by Florida Blue and Tampa Bay Business Journal, human resources professionals from some of the area’s “healthiest employers” discussed their challenges and successes in using health, benefits, technology and data analytics to create and nurture a culture of health. This has helped them recruit and retain top talent in challenging times and become important community citizens.
Moderated by David Pizzo, West Florida Market President for Florida Blue, they explored how companies’ focus on traditional health initiatives, as well as holistic mental wellness and leading-edge apps and strategies, are creating more engaging workplaces that help them achieve “healthiest employer” status. What some have found is that comprehensive benefits and a culture of caring helped stave off the effects of the “great resignation” or “great retirement,” while keeping people engaged as companies ponder their return-to-work strategies.
As Pizzo noted, “successful companies have strong engagement.” The best among them take it even further. Donna Popovich, Vice President of Human Resources for the University of Tampa, said it goes beyond caring for your people. It’s about a commitment to them. Administrators and HR professionals provide market-leading benefits, and they also capitalize on their downtown riverfront campus to “integrate health and wellness into everything we do,” she said. Fitness facilities, outreach and other programs are available at all hours.
“We lean in more. Our programs are available 24/7 in virtual and face-to-face so you live a healthy lifestyle,” she said. “As a result, we realize high employee engagement and low turnover.”
This has been important as companies faced those compounded impacts of the great resignation and debates over employees returning to work.
Solid benefits, lower turnover
The comprehensive “total rewards package” at GTE Financial delivers comprehensive benefits and has served as a buffer of sorts against the workplace trends, said Rene McKenna, the company’s Assistant Vice President. Its wellness programs and healthy culture have earned high employee satisfaction and industry accolades, including from the American Heart Association. This six-year mission has resulted in the lowest turnover in seven years, she said.
Those companies that saw the greatest returns did more than simply “throw out a lot of programs,” said Crystal Riganati, Senior Vice President of Human Resources with Members Trust Company. The company asked what their people wanted, then delivered a variety of initiatives. Those include “Biggest Loser” competitions, emotional life lessons, and team-building programs, such as virtual game shows or escape rooms
“A program won’t be successful unless there’s employee engagement and buy-in. So I’d just want to make sure we’re listening to our employees,” Riganati said. “As long as we’re doing that, we’re moving in the right direction.”
The common component for effective retention has been a focus on holistic health and wellness. Evara Health’s corporate health and wellness serves physical, emotional, financial and social reach beyond the ranks to families and communities, said Laura Beck, the company’s Manager of Workforce Management. Introduced in 2019, the goal was to provide its workforce with resources to encourage adoption and maintaining of healthy habits to achieve their own health and wellness goals.
In 2021, 75% of employees were actively engaged in an activity, event or challenge. As a local not-for-profit healthcare organization, the figure was “incredible,” she said.
“We really have our staff’s buy-in and they’re committed to the activities that we provide,” she said. “Our wellness program has been a perk, and creating healthier communities is at its core. Our team believes it starts with taking care of our most valuable assets – our employees.
The rise of mental health tech
What became apparent in the pandemic was the need for mental health. One lasting reality from the pandemic was the reality that “mental health” is a bona fide concern, not cause for stigma. Celebrities, actors and athletes have grown vocal about their mental health needs, which has helped increase awareness and an embrace of care, Pizzo said.
As one member of the Florida Blue team noted, “there’s no health without mental health.” Companies throughout the region have elevated their mental health efforts to alleviate chronic stress and burnout.
Members Trust Company wanted to bring mental health and wellness to the forefront, Riganati said. Well before “Mental Health Awareness” month each May, the company reminds its people about its EAP and general mental health coverage. It also encourages use of virtual sessions on the “Give an Hour” mental health services and education application to help with emotional life skills, wellbeing resources, and to help at any signs of emotional suffering,” she said.
Early on, Evara Health worked to “get ahead of the situation,” Beck said. The organization ramped up behavioral health services and providers on site and via telehealth, and they subscribed to mindfulness and meditation app Headspace at no cost to employees. That was atop offering virtual classes in personal finance, yoga, cooking and other topics, which kept people engaged and connected to one another.
In addition to encouraging use of PTO, they enhanced the PTO accrual rate and implemented a designation of mental health days that employees could use “no questions asked,” Beck said.
University of Tampa employees use the My Health Novel app for virtual or in-person coaching, physical health and wellness, weight loss and other activities. GTE Financial, which uses Teladoc, among other apps, wants to tap simplicity and flexibility to help ensure its people won’t forego access to timely care, McKenna said. It also provides its employees a “consumer medical advocate” to assist in their health needs.
Florida Blue implemented the meQuilibrium app to help people better identify, differentiate and manage stress. The company partnered with Sanitas Medical Centers, which has five locations in Hillsborough County, to offer its members 24/7 digital access to a clinician at their doctor’s office. Use of these and other qualifying events, like physicals and screenings, earn employees points toward their HSA, Pizzo said. The meQuilibrium app is “engaging people almost like a conversation. People are engaged. That’s the main thing.”
Coaching, mentors, solutions and technology, like apps, allow employees to take charge of their health care. Beyond engagement, the modern workforce is being very open about what they need, McKenna said. With their input, the focus has grown from what works to how to choose the best solutions so employees can “make the most of myself,” Popovich said.
“We have so many resources to do it,” she said. “So when we focus on wellbeing, people will self-reflect, conduct a self-inventory, and look for those tools to advance everything in their life.”
Forward-looking solutions
A health and wellness program can only be successful if employees are “bought in” and participating regularly, and organizations are committed to keeping it fresh. Pizzo wondered what the “secret” was to today’s healthiest employers keeping their programs relevant and their employees engaged.
Panelists agreed: just ask your people. At Evara Health, the wellness committee is composed of a diverse group of employees who ultimately oversee the employee wellness program. As liaisons and champions from across departments and Evara’s health centers, they seek out feedback, then schedule and roll out wellness events and challenges, and prepare and distribute program materials. They are Evara’s “boots on the ground,” finding out whether programs are well received or in need of change, Beck said.
“Our program is evolving, it’s ever changing,” she said. “We want to make sure we’re meeting everyone’s needs and creating attainable goals for everyone in the organization.”
GTE’s wellness champion network is further broken down into a wellness micro community. Developed six years ago, employees are familiar with the concept. This fosters trust from the open dialogue and reminds them of programs and initiatives, especially in the virtual environment.
University of Tampa, which is self-insured, deploys data analytics to develop and drive programs and incentives and determine where any investments would best be spent. “Knowing the numbers and how you want to leverage your resources optimizes outcomes,” she said.
Ultimately, when coupled with traditional wellness initiatives, attention paid to mental wellness, the use of apps, and the use of research and data, are creating better programs, more engaged employees, and organizations that can achieve “healthiest employer” status. What they also earn is a reputation for being a highly desirable workplace.
Lightning round question
It’s December 31, 2022. You’re reflecting on your strides in health and wellness over the past year. What would you like to accomplish going forward?
Crystal Riganati, Members Trust Company: A program won’t be successful unless there’s employee engagement and buy-in. So I’d just want to make sure we’re listening to our employees. As long as we’re doing that, we’re moving in the right direction.
Donna Popovich, University of Tampa: We’re continually creating new ways to engage our employees. How do we keep that momentum going? It’s about looking for the next great thing.
Laura Beck, Evara Health: It would be enhancing the programs we have in place already, and listening to employee feedback in conjunction with looking at statistics…All of these contribute to where we’re going. We’d recap the year, talking about what worked, and what could be improved and build it into the next year.
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