Gesa Wellness Program Sheds Pounds, Pumps Up Morale
As the battle for talent wages on, credit unions have to be creative in their recruitment and retaining efforts.
At Richland, Wash.-based Gesa Credit Union, a focus on helping employees improve their health has helped reinforce a sense of fun and camaraderie among staffers. From healthy cooking tips, a daily walking club, a “biggest loser” contest and a newly instituted softball team to encouraging an hour of play with hula hoops and jump ropes, the wellness program has offered something for everyone when it comes to personal health.
“From the beginning the idea was to get people to think about how much fun it is to be active rather than to consider it a chore,” said Eileen Griffin senior vice president, wealth management/human resources at the $1 billion credit union. “We wanted something for everyone keeping it fun and competitive. It was also a morale building tool as we found activities that would bring people together. Employees are forming bonds through these activities. We are benefitting as an organization in multiple ways because the higher morale, the interaction across departments and improved health are all worthy accomplishments.”
Created as a way to minimize claims and ultimately reduce the costs of its health care insurance, the program kicked off last October and its informal “Fitness Is Fun” tagline has resonated with staffers. According to Griffin, the formation of a wellness committee consisting of volunteers from across the organization has been critical to the success of the initiative.
The 25 committee members meet once a month for less than an hour discussing new projects, future plans taking ideas, suggestions and following up on current projects.
“We encourage the committee to also be asking their co-workers for suggestions. One committee member, for example, took on the vending machines. She worked with our vendor to make sure that we traded out some of the high-fat snacks for healthier options,” said Griffin. “Miranda Kaut, our vending machine champion, also taught a class in low-fat cooking. We had another committee member who organized a class in proper running techniques."
She added that developing the right activity mix has been a lot of trial and error.
“We offered Zumba classes in house, and as popular as it is, we just did not have enough participants to keep it going,” said Griffin. “The biggest loser has been extremely successful, on the other hand.”
The first official biggest loser challenge brought 56 participants who lost 538 pounds in nine weeks. Several participants reached their goal weight. In combination with the biggest loser program is a walk-a-mile competition where employees enter their names in a weekly drawing each time they walk a mile. At the end of each week, a name was drawn and a prize is awarded. The latest challenge has been extended to 12 weeks to give its 48 and growing number of participants more time to meet their goals.
“It started out slowly, but then it started to catch on. Employees give each other encouragement, and we are all on the bandwagon now,” said Griffin. “We’ve found that if we can position it as fun, more are likely to participate and be less intimidated. Our softball team is a community league team that plays against other companies, which helps us with business development as we play other local companies. It also gets our name out in the community more and has brought together people from across various business units.”
In addition to the wellness committee and having a CEO who supports the program, essentially setting the tone for the entire organization, Griffin credits an active branch network with wellness champions at each branch who coordinate their own mini-activities to mirror what’s happening at the corporate office.
“Our program is very inexpensive. It does not have to cost much money. You have to use your own internal resources and take advantage of whatever the community has to offer,” said Griffin.” We bought a few scales, some giveaways, apples and baskets for our launch, and we have bought some more significant prizes for big winners. For example, we gave away an iPod Nano for the walking contest winner. We subsidized the Zumba class.”
She added that the benefits have been such that credit unions can’t go wrong crafting their own wellness programs.
“It is absolutely worthwhile. I believe healthier people are happier people. At first it was a little disappointing, but I have seen the enthusiasm grow, and I’ve seen the satisfaction employees have from reaching a weight goal or extending their physical activity. I see groups of employees go to walk the track together on their lunch break, and they will rally around an individual who is struggling with weight or lack of motivation,” said Griffin. “This program pays dividends in productivity and attitude, and hopefully we will have long-term effects of better health. I think any credit union, regardless of size, can do some type of wellness program. I believe we are teaching self responsibility and that is good for both the individual and the organization. Employees need to take responsibility for their own lives, and many of our employees have done that. They have proven to themselves that they can be masters of their own destiny by taking charge of their own health. I think some organizations are afraid that it’s expensive and time consuming. Gesa has proven that it is neither.”
She advised credit unions looking to create their own programs to ensure they have the support of executive management and to involve a team rather than leaving it to HR.
“Offer a variety of activities and options to participate in,” said Griffin. “There has definitely been a difference in our team. People look great and seem to feel great and the enthusiasm is contagious. Because we are doing this as a group, we can help each other. We do talk about it at recruitment, and we get definitely get a positive response from candidates on our walking track.”