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Earlier today, we shared six things that Mary Pitman, manager of health promotions at Norfolk Southern Corporation, sees as wrong with NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” and why she believes the reality television show is a poor model for workplace wellness initiatives. So, how can employers create smarter strategies for wellness?
"Wellness is about gaining health, not losing weight," says Pitman. Instead of running contests and setting up other "wellness" programs that focus on getting employees to lose as much weight as possible, employers need to focus on helping employees to achieve true wellness.
How Norfolk Southern Encourages Employee Wellness
One way employers can encourage wellness is by removing barriers that stand between employees and healthy choices, says Pitman. At Norfolk Southern, they've adopted several measures to make healthy choices easier for employees to make.
Vending Machine Makeovers
They’ve changed up their office vending machines so that they offer a mix of traditional treats and healthier choices. They’ve also put lower price tags on the healthier options to encourage people to try new things and to make it easier to make healthy choices.
Pitman encourages employers that want to try this tactic be sure to review the healthy snack options with their vendors because they may find they have a different idea of “healthy” than the vending industry does. For example, Norfolk Southern discovered their vending machine vendor had Pop Tarts on its list of healthy snacks -- a definition the railroad company disagreed with.
Providing Easy Access to Produce
This year Norfolk Southern started offering a community supported agriculture program, known as a CSA, at one of its Norfolk offices. Through the CSA, a local farm brings produce to the office once a week to sell to employees there.
The convenient access to fresh produce helps employees make healthier food choices at the same time as it helps local farmers make a living. The program has been a success and Pitman says they’re looking to add it to other office locations.
Workplace Weight Watchers
Hosting Weight Watchers in the office during the workweek makes it easy for employees to attend. Also, the program emphasizes replacing old habits with new, healthy eating and physical-activity habits. The goal is to make a change for life, not just long enough to win a weight-loss contest.
Encouragement to Be Active
Norfolk Southern often offers to pay employees’ registration to fitness events in the community, such as bicycle and running races. They also offer incentives, such as company-themed tee shirts for participating in these types of activities.
At races where a group of employees participates, Pitman says she likes to reward the group member who comes in last with some kind of prize because "it's not about winning, it's about showing up and participating." The person who shows up and tries “runs laps around the people who stay home.”
Pitman is also a fan of Virgin HealthMiles, which has a program where each employee who participates gets a tracker and is rewarded for activity levels. The company is able to set up incentives to encourage employees to be more active. It’s more expensive than other programs Norfolk Pacific offers, says Pitman, but she feels it’s worth it.
Focus on the Big Picture Instead of “The Biggest Loser”
“The Biggest Loser” and other weight-loss competitions are extreme and unsustainable, as well as winner-takes-all, says Pitman. Company wellness programs need to focus on helping everyone because with a true wellness program, everyone has an opportunity to be a winner.
With a wellness program, you want to strive to create a new normal, not a short-term change with a return to business as usual at the end, says Pitman.
She recommends taking the emphasis off of simple weight loss by bringing in a vendor to do a health screening for employees as part of any wellness effort. This doesn’t replace employees’ annual physicals, but provides them with information on blood pressure, cholesterol and other health measurements, so they don’t just focus on the number on the scale as they work toward wellness.
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