Back in October 2003, the Dole Nutrition Institute launched the Dole Employee Wellness (DEW) program for employees at its Westlake Village, Calif., corporate headquarters with an ambitious goal.We hoped to create an oasis from the “toxic food environment” decried by nutrition activists by devising a program that would surround employees with healthy options — even pay them to make choices that would improve their health.We monitored participation, commissioned surveys, provided redeemable “Dole Dollar” incentives, measured before-and-after weight and blood values of a volunteer study group and looked at the impact of these changes on health care costs.The results were mixed.
Some components were more popular than others, but popularity did not always correlate with positive health impact.This evaluation provides helpful insights on how our own program could be improved, and how other corporate wellness programs might learn from both our wins and misses.
Here’s what the program included:
- Free morning fruit and afternoon veggie snacks.
- Dining room overhaul and vending machine changes.
- Lunchtime Laps walking group.
- Free on-campus Bikram yoga and fitness classes.
- State-of-the-art fitness facility.
- One-on-one dietician consults.
- Visual cues like signs encouraging stairs vs.elevators.
- Bimonthly diet and nutrition newsletter.
Most popular — and the most expensive — was the free snack program.No big surprise there — folks love free food.Our survey revealed 40% of respondents participated in snack times, while 100% of the fruit usually disappears.We did move from rather lavish displays of cut fruit at the beginning of the program to more mundane single pieces of fruit — partially to try and contain costs and partially because the displays seemed to encourage overconsumption.
A total overhaul of our headquarters’ dining facilities was undertaken in January to eliminate most saturated fat, trans fat and refined sugars.Corporate and DNI subsidies saw an increase, as the costs of the salad bar and a low-fat fish or vegan “Daily Dole” entree were dramatically reduced to encourage consumption of healthy options.
According to our survey results, a substantial majority of employees have embraced these dietary reforms.Nearly two-thirds of respondents feel that the dining room changes have had a positive impact on their health and diet.On the other hand, those who can’t do without “fast food”-type entrees like cheeseburgers and fries may be staying away, contributing to a drop in dining room revenues.Still, an amazing 79% of employees surveyed say they have tried vegetarian entrees, soups and foods they had never eaten before.
Clearly we’re expanding dietary horizons and improving daily nutrition when it comes to the vast majority of employees.The DEW program has been less successful in increasing the fitness levels of our employees.Those who were already using the gym are using it more often, leading to an upward trend in the number of visits while the number of individuals using the facility has remained fairly stable.
While the introduction of Bikram yoga classes elicited initial enthusiasm, participation dwindled to the point where we decided to cancel that offering.Similarly, the “Lunchtime Laps” walking group started strong but fizzled over time.New classes, like a “Spring Boot Camp” have proved more popular, suggesting employees may prefer a more fast-paced, upbeat program, and also that frequently rotating the type of classes offered might help maintain interest.
Moreover, if our survey results are to be believed, 63% of employees already exercise outside of work or at home.A quarter of employees exercise at work — a fairly high percentage — while the percentage of people who claim to do no exercise, 8%, was relatively quite low.All in all, these numbers suggest Dole employees are an active bunch when compared to national statistics showing that nearly 40% of Americans do nothing more strenuous than clicking their remote control at the television set — and only one in 10 exercises vigorously on a regular basis.
Fewer employees than we would have liked participated in the educational components of DEW, such as the “Lunch ‘n Learn” lectures — 45 to 60 minute talks by outside experts on health topics ranging from heart health to strength training to vegan cooking classes.Our survey results suggested the topics that drew the greatest response were memory enhancement, healthy cooking, women’s health, stress management and cholesterol/general nutrition.
In order to measure the health impact of these changes, DEW organized a 55-subject test group, then partnered with the National Genetics Institute to monitor changes in blood values, weight, body fat, etc.over a six-month period.Most encouraging was a slight drop in triglyceride, LDL and VLDL (bad and very bad) cholesterol and C-reactive protein levels and a rise in HDL (good) cholesterol levels.Further analysis is needed to determine whether these changes were partly responsible for the modest reduction in health care costs for this group (during this time frame over last year’s costs for the same group in a comparable period).
While the group lost 104 pounds as a whole, the average number of pounds dropped was just 1.89.We would recommend a greater focus on weight loss, per se, rather than just general wellness, to improve anthropometric results.
Another study, commissioned by the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses (AAOHN), was released about the same time as we completed our report and may shed some light on new ways businesses can help employees lose pounds.While only 2% of those surveyed claimed to have participated in a workplace weight-loss program, nearly half of the participants reached and maintained their long-term goals.This is an impressive result, particularly given the high rate of relapse back into old habits by those who lose pounds only to regain the weight and more.The built-in peer motivation, employee incentives and convenience of such at-work programs may help explain their unique efficacy.Those activities and services most highly valued by survey respondents included on-site visits with trained health professionals (38%), gym memberships (23%), health seminars (16%), diets with outlined goals (14%) and on-site exercise classes (13%).
Interestingly enough, the relatively low value assigned to onsite fitness classes certainly showed up in our experience as these constituted one of the least utilized components of our program.To put a twist on an old aphorism, you can lead a horse to the racetrack, but you can’t make him run.At the end of the day, the key to weight loss and better health lies within.
Activists can rail all they want against outside forces — the food industry, television watching, aggressive marketing, labor-saving technology, etc.– and certainly such factors have created an environment in which eating healthy and staying active is just that much more challenging.But if we’ve learned one thing from our experiment in employee wellness, it’s that no matter how much you change that environment, individuals are not determinist beings.The human will still remains the biggest deciding factor in determining one’s dietary destiny.