How can employers advance health and wellbeing in the workplace? This Fort Wayne company has ideas

COVID-19 has not only shifted the economy, but the way companies take care of their employees. Employee wellness programs are one means to that end. As a result, many organizations nationally and in Northeast Indiana are either starting or ramping up their wellness support efforts.

What does this look like in 2020? Professionals from Sweetwater share how their work is contributing to a positive workplace environment and what businesses of all sizes and resources can learn from their approach. 

Wellbeing is multi-dimensional, says Jarvis Foster, a full-time certified Personal Trainer at Sweetwater, who is doing his part to help employees stay active. Sweetwater has an on-site fitness facility that’s free of charge to its employees and their guests.

Sweetwater's Jarvis Foster helps employees achieve fitness goals.

The Sweetwater fitness facility is Foster’s home turf, and he says it represents the company’s commitment to helping its workforce live healthier lives. When he was first hired, he was tasked with solely developing workout and nutrition plans and helping employees execute them. But once Sweetwater's leadership realized he had more credentials, they decided to expand the program’s offerings. 

“At that point, we decided to do more physical fitness challenges,” Foster says. “For those who didn't want to come into the gym, we came up with ways they could still participate, like weightloss challenges and even walking or running challenges.”

Foster says the feedback on these challenges was positive, and the results were just as favorable. Employees began to view him as an ally in their quest for improved health and became eager to dive deeper. In some cases, he's been able to offer feedback on employees' food choices and how their diet impacts their performance at work or home.

Reflecting on these relationships, he believes helping employees improve their wellness at work comes down to a trust factor. If trust is present in the office environment, Foster says companies of all sizes and resources can find ways to support their staff as they meet or stretch their fitness goals.

His advice? Start small, and designate someone to track results and motivate people.

"Be part of their journey,” he says.

In the end, he believes efforts to support your employee's physical fitness and wellbeing will contribute to both the longevity of the workforce and the company itself. 

Dr. Todd Page carea for a patient at Sweetwater's clinic.

Sweetwater’s in-house physician, Todd Page, M.D., shares a similar view. He says Sweetwater's on-site clinic helps employees lower their healthcare costs, but perhaps more fundamentally, it provides them with peace of mind. Page and his nurse treat employees and employees' immediate family members for “acute issues,” such as ear infections. They offer flu shots and other preventative services, which has kept them busy answering questions about COVID-19 and its symptoms since the pandemic began, Page says.

But looking at the bigger picture of his work and its impact, he feels that Sweetwater's in-house clinic is particularly useful at easing the transition for new employees who might be recruited from out of town or out of state.

“With so many people being hired and moving into the area from out of state, they usually don't have a doctor,” he says. “So we can take care of them while they're working on getting established with a provider at some point.”

He acknowledges that Sweetwater is a bit of an anomaly, in that companies of its size usually don’t have a full-time clinician on site. But that doesn’t mean others can’t follow its lead on a smaller level. For instance, he referenced one of the company's internal Facebook groups, “Sweet Home Indiana," which helps new employees acclimate to the area and learn about local resources. Employees can crowdsource information about everything from healthcare providers to restaurant recommendations.

Page says this can be helpful in making employees feel welcome and "not alone" in their first few months at work, and reducing stress has a wide-ranging impact on peoples' overall health.

Just as Page caters to employees' physical health needs, Terrie English provides a safe space for their emotional support. As a counselor at Sweetwater, she says it’s important to destigmatize mental health challenges in the workplace, especially during a global pandemic. Employees are juggling many burdens they may or may not share with their peers. For those in need of a listening ear, English serves as a trusted confidante and an expert who can refer them to higher levels of care, as necessary.

Sweetwater's counselor Terrie English is available to lend an ear.

On that note, English acknowledges that companies not in the position to hire a full-time mental health professional can still show they care for their employee's emotional wellbeing and mental health. Her suggestion? Have a contracted mental health provider available for referrals and, if possible, subsidize the cost of mental health care visits through an employee assistance program. 

At the very least, she says someone in HR should have a list of local mental health providers on hand. According to English, while the pandemic has exposed pre-existing mental health challenges, there’s a silver lining in that people are becoming more aware of the resources available to help them cope. 

“There are a lot of local providers who offer online counseling,” she says. “Places like Park Center even offer Saturday appointments. So, there are lots of different resources out there trying to accommodate people by being more accessible.”

Speaking of accessibility, Sweetwater’s newly minted Vice President of Employee Wellbeing, Kristal Walker, is charged with helping employees make the most of these benefits. In her opinion, wellbeing means “the state of being fully capable to perform and engage, both on the job and at home.”

Sweetwater's new vice president of employee wellbeing Kristal Walker.

Walker says the onus rests on the employer to create an environment that sets their people up for success. 

“There are many companies that are still trying to determine what wellness actually means to them and if they have the budget to incorporate wellness activities,” she says. “Still, there are some companies that are in denial about whether or not wellness is their responsibility as an employer.”

For firms looking to be on the leading edge of wellness care, Walker says metrics are key at every point in the process. While she’s new to the organization, she plans to take her own advice. 

“I absolutely believe that what gets measured gets done,” she says. “I think, initially, we'll do some light assessment in terms of really keeping our ear to the ground, finding out how people are feeling about some of the services that we offer. But at the very least, we want to be able to keep some general stats on how many people were able to feel supported and how they're feeling about the services overall.”

Walker says there’s value in anecdotal evidence, too. One way to know if your wellness programs are working is if people are talking about them with their friends and family outside of the organization. That, coupled with data, can be a winning combination. 
“We may be able to measure our success in terms of retention and recruitment," she says. "But we also want to make sure that we have enough data to where we can prove whether or not our programs are effective.”

Jeff Ostermann 
Sweetwater’s Senior Vice President and Chief People Officer

Charged with leading the company’s larger human resources initiatives, Jeff Ostermann keeps his finger on the pulse of trends in the employee engagement landscape. He says wellness programs are one piece of the larger puzzle of keeping people happy and healthy at work and beyond. Sweetwater is committed to strengthening and adding to these programs when and where it makes sense.

Input Fort Wayne sat down with Ostermann to learn more about the past, present, and future of employee-centric endeavors at Sweetwater.

IFW: What does employee wellness mean at Sweetwater? 

JO: For us, a big part of it stems from the way we've approached the company since the beginning. Chuck's founding idea was to just help his friends make music, and really, at the heart of that, was relationships and people. So our approach to wellness always flowed out of that. When we think about wellbeing, it's about our relationships with our employees, not just our customers, and helping our employees be well and do well in life. That, obviously, has to do with their performance here as part of our company, but it goes beyond that to just helping them be well and do well as individuals.

IFW: Are there organizations you look to as examples of effectively integrating wellness into corporate DNA?

JO: Not per se, but sometimes, we're inspired by examples in other industries. For example, one of the positions we're hiring for right now is a Healthcare Navigator. This is going to be a new role within our company that is designed specifically to work with employees to help them navigate the health insurance system, so they can figure out how to find the most affordable, highest quality of care. 

It’s a bit unusual that a company like ours would hire a person like this directly. But, you know, that's an example of us looking outside our industry or outside of norms for what companies are doing to address pain points. The idea is that maybe we can bring some resources in-house that add more value to employees and help take away some of their frustration. So we're always looking for different ways we can do that.

IFW: How do these perks attract and retain talent?

JO: We are, at the broadest level, a company that cares for its people. A lot of candidates these days are looking for their next job. The work matters, but also the environment and culture matters, too. Most folks coming to interview with us ask a lot of questions, like “What are you doing in healthcare?” And "What are you doing to care for your employees?” And "What do some of these benefits and perks look like?” The answer to these questions is every bit as important to them as the compensation. 

Some of this we can communicate from a distance, letting potential hires know what resources we offer. But we find that time and time again, they really need to come on-site to fully experience the environment and culture of care we've created. It speaks volumes about what type of environment they're walking into. 

I think many of them know that the company is also going to have their back and be there to support them. That makes stepping into a role with us that much more enjoyable.

IFW: You now have a Vice President of Employee Wellbeing. What does this position entail and represent?

JO: We recently hired Kristal Walker, and we scoped out her role to include this very holistic view of employee health. We already had a variety of resources at Sweetwater, but really, we're expecting Walker to do even more in examining and identifying opportunities for us to invest in our employees. That includes overseeing what we're doing from a physical health and mental health standpoint, as well as an employee financial wellbeing standpoint. 

The other area that she brings a very strong background in the training and development side of things. She’s going to be overseeing the whole wellbeing portfolio with a special emphasis on training and development—including diversity and inclusion initiatives. For years, we’ve had some very strong training, especially in our Sweetwater University program that caters highly to our sales department. But what Kristal is going to be doing is identifying and delivering some new opportunities for us to help develop our people everywhere, from new employees coming into their first career out of school all the way to managers and supervisors.

Over the next year, there's going to be a number of new training programs that we roll out through Walker's leadership. I think beyond that, we just continue to look and listen to what we hear from our employees and find ways that we can be responsive to their needs.

IFW: What advice do you have for other businesses and organizations looking to start incorporating wellness into their workplaces? 

JO: It goes back to making sure there's somebody there for your employees, and oftentimes, that's not a formal HR program. Sometimes, that's the person who just works next to them, or it's their supervisor who sees them every day. And I think having somebody who's willing to sit down and lend a listening ear and take the time to just personally show that they care about somebody, and they care about what they're going through, is very important.

In the hustle and bustle of running a business or a nonprofit organization, sometimes those moments get lost because we're moving too fast. Just taking the opportunity to check in on somebody to see how they're really doing is at the core of any wellness strategy, even if you don't have the ability to build programs or services on top of that.

This story was made possible by Sweetwater.
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Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a freelance contributor for Input Fort Wayne. A graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.