Every now and then a small employer comes along that shows how well-being, done right, makes a meaningful difference in the lives of employees and in the organization. Despite what many think, small employer wellness programs do have the potential to be on par with, or even surpass, the lavish programs of corporate giants.
SMP, an IT service and solution provider based in Rochester NY, exemplifies how a small employer can execute a robust well-being strategy that goes beyond the holy grail for a culture of health. Currently employing just over 100, SMP’s hiring of a dedicated wellness director, Nikki Reynolds, as 48th employee is a testament to the company’s vision and commitment.
SMP’s 4 wellness program goals:
- Make personal health and self-care prominent factors in the lives of employees
- Offer a variety of services that promote total well-being and encourage broad participation
- Foster a widespread sense of creativity, focus, and vitality
- Increase collaboration and camaraderie.
This small employer’s wellness activities include 5-6 weekly fitness classes, taught by Nikki, an accomplished triathlete and nutrition educator. She also leads cooking classes and lunch ’n learns for the employees. Recently she has welcomed outside experts to present on diverse topics such as the opioid epidemic, financial well-being, and the effect of poverty on less fortunate local community members’ self-sufficiency.
A typical week might also include a project in SMP’s 3 raised garden beds. “The garden and related activities,” Nikki points out, “promote a connection with the environment and provide employees with time in green space.”
A 20-minute guided imagery relaxation is offered twice a week. In addition, therapeutic massage is available monthly. Employees also recently participated in a challenge called Better Zzzs for a Better Me to focus on healthy sleep.
“We provide a variety of activities,” Nikki notes. “I say to all employees, ‘Do the things you want to do. If things don’t interest you, don’t feel pressured.’ The goal is for wellness to be synonymous with working at SMP.”
Inspiration to Try Something Different
There’s seemingly no end to Nikki’s innovations, such as:
- Scrumptious Squash day, when she roasted a variety of less common winter squash so employees could experience alternatives to acorn and butternut
- For Garlic Sakes, Eat the Scapes, to turn garlic lovers on to scapes as a novel option
- Super Easy Soup, where she prepared soup in advance and explained the process cooking-show style, while employees feasted on the end product.
“Hopefully,” she explains, “participants relieve stress, they’re more rejuvenated when they return to their desks, and they’re inspired to try something different when they go home.”
Making Wellness About the Employees
Not all creative ideas start with Nikki. An employee proposed SMP’s ongoing Curious Crumb Club, an informal group that meets every 2 weeks. Together, the group explores a variety of health-related issues. “I research the topic and present the content and we just chit-chat. We’ve done everything from a nut butter taste test and discussing the health benefits to our most recent topic, endocrine disruptors (chemicals that interfere with hormonal systems).”
In addition to Nikki’s classes, SMP has offered several creative individual and team programs that draw participation rates approaching 50%:
- Fall into Step Challenge: Participants tracked distance walked during the autumn months
- The SMP Great Migration: Teams accumulated mileage to travel virtually from Rochester to Savannah GA (a destination Nikki selected “on a whim”)
- SMP Wellbeing Olympics: During last year’s Winter Games, teams engaged in friendly competition with cardiovascular exercise, produce servings, mindfulness, sleep, social well-being, strength training, and avoiding tobacco.
Nikki forgoes common wellness program staples — like biometric screenings and HRAs — in favor of wider home-brewed offerings for an employee population she describes as “highly skilled, driven professionals in a really fun environment.”
For this small employer’s wellness program, they elect not to use an incentive system, but they do offer prizes to keep things interesting and enjoyable. “Participants might get a $25 token for the farmers’ market or a gift card for a sporting goods store.” She’s even cooked employees a healthy breakfast as a prize. “Nobody is going to enroll in an 8-week program because they may have breakfast made for them on a Thursday morning,” she acknowledges. “The intention is to celebrate success, not to motivate behavior.”
Some small employers may bemoan the impediments to sustaining a wellness program for a small employee population. But Nikki notes the advantages. “Being small allows me to be better tuned in to the company’s needs. It also allows employees to know me better and be more comfortable stopping into my office for a 1-on-1 health coaching session or to sign up for a program. The value of personal interaction is huge. And it allows our whimsical programs to be more readily accepted.”
Gratitude and Giving
Community service is a hallmark of the SMP wellness program. Employees are encouraged to give back in numerous ways and to take stock of their own good fortune:
- Around the holidays, Nikki set up a program so people can volunteer to buy gifts for families in need. She also organized employees on a Friday afternoon for Cards and Cocktails to write thank-you notes in holiday care packages for service men and women deployed overseas.
- Employees participate in frequent service opportunities at the local food pantry and Ronald McDonald House (a residence for families of children hospitalized nearby).
- Throughout last November, Nikki offered Thanks and Giving: “Each Monday I sent employees an email with weekly objectives. They got an assignment, such as reading an article or watching a TEDTalk® on gratitude or community service. Then we had an optional meeting on Thursday. And during the month I arranged for various voluntary community service opportunities.”
Long term, Nikki remains flexible about the small employer’s wellness goals to assure the program continues to meet employees’ changing needs and interests. An annual survey goes only so far in predicting those needs and interests, especially as the company’s population continues to grow. The next steps reveal themselves when she asks the right questions. “For me,” she says, “It’s always pushing forward to ‘How do I do a better job and deliver a better program? How does SMP continue to be a great place to work?’”
Meant to Be at SMP
The story of Nikki Reynolds’ path to SMP is a tale of destiny. Her commitment to fitness, rooted in sports and outdoor activities as a kid, morphed into a more holistic outlook — ranging from nutrition to emotional and spiritual well-being. She eventually earned a Bachelor’s in Health Promotion and a Master’s in Health Promotion Management from American University.
After participating in a local triathlon, Nikki grew curious about the event’s corporate sponsor. She had never heard of SMP. She emailed Eric Rorapaugh, SMP founder and President/CEO, to thank him for sponsoring the race. Then she introduced herself and made a pitch for how wellness could benefit his company. “A few weeks later,” Nikki recalls, “he contacted me to schedule an interview. I shared my vision for a comprehensive wellness program at SMP, and he said, ‘Let’s go for it.’”
Eric set the tone for the program by sending a note to all employees announcing Nikki’s arrival and explaining what a valuable opportunity the wellness program would be for everyone.
Shaping the Work Environment
Eric doesn’t participate in every event. However, his endorsement of wellness is known to all employees. “He is at a lot of sponsored events in the community, he’s at award events, and he uses it as a talking point, too,” adds Nikki. “Even when he sees someone in the hallway heading out for a run, he asks, ‘Hey, going for a run… that’s awesome,’ rather than ‘Why aren’t you at your desk?’”
Employees are aware that Eric walks the talk. He actively engages in a variety of races and adventure events. His commitment is evident to visitors by his sleek 2-person and 4-person racing canoes mounted on the wall of the company gym.
Nikki describes the company’s unique, inspiring wellness perspective: “Rather than trying to have the wellness program fit into our company culture, the program has helped define our culture. It helps to shape the work environment for our employees and is consistently part of our messaging to the community.”
Nikki connects the dots between CEO support and employee wellness success. “The SMP program exists because of Eric’s commitment and passion,” she beams. “He continually encourages employees to take care of themselves and engage in the program. Eric is the living example of SMP’s identity as a healthy organization.”
Bob Merberg is an independent consultant with 20+ years in managing employee well-being programs. He specializes in helping employers increase engagement and health outcomes through innovative programs, communication, workplace environment, and organization development strategies. Bob’s well-being program evaluation results have been featured at wellness conferences and in various media outlets.