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How One Insurance Agency Has Benefited from Its Premium on Health and Wellness

From left, Bill Trudeau, Christine Rousseau, and Judy Davis

From left, Bill Trudeau, Christine Rousseau, and Judy Davis say employees of ICNE have embraced the challenge to change their lifestyles, from improved diet and exercise to smoking cessation.

It began as a way for the Insurance Center of New England to practice what it preaches when it comes to the subject of health and wellness. But the comprehensive initiative that involves everything from smoking-cessation efforts, to an organized walking program, to an ever-present bowl of fruit in the company’s kitchen, has become part of the culture at ICNE and a model for other businesses to follow.

By GEORGE O’BRIEN

Bill Trudeau calls it the “full Big Brother.”
That’s the Orwellian phrase he used to describe a company’s health and wellness plan that goes a little too far in terms of what it asks, or demands, of employees.
“You don’t want to go to extremes,” he said, meaning that employees don’t want to be made to feel as if they’re being watched, monitored, or judged by the way they respond to a plan.
Avoiding the Big Brother effect has been one of the goals set by the Insurance Center of New England as it implements a plan set in motion last fall, said Trudeau, partner and chief operating officer. Overall, the mindset is to keep things simple, he explained, and also make it easy for people and have the program become part of the culture at ICNE.
About eight months after the so-called Health & Wellness Journey started at the company’s offices in West Springfield and Gardner, all of that is being accomplished — and more. Or, as the case may be, less.
Indeed, there have been several recognized benefits: many people have quit smoking, and others are working on the problem and making progress; several employees are eating more fruit and walking regularly — and as a result are losing weight; and, already, there are some cost savings in terms of health-insurance premiums. But there’s something else, and it wasn’t exactly expected — a surge in employee morale that has paralleled the path taken by the program.
There are many components to the ICNE initiative, said Christine Rousseau, Human Resources Manager for ICNE. Some are rather involved, such as the creation of a smoke-free work environment (much more on that later), while others, such as the fruit basket placed in the kitchen, the walking program that many have joined, and efforts in the realm of education, such as a health and wellness library, are quite simple.
They are also relatively inexpensive (some require no upfront cost whatsoever), and they have been implemented to be minimally invasive on one’s work regimen and daily schedule.
“We run a business here, and service to our customers is very important,” said Trudeau. “I would say that 99% of this doesn’t interfere in our business in any way — it’s not a hugely invasive kind of program.
“There are some quick surveys, there’s fruit in the kitchen, some walking during lunch; it’s not like people have to say, ‘sorry, I can’t do that now, I have the health and wellness thing.’ Everything happens on the fringes, at lunch and in the regular flow of the office.”
For this issue, BusinessWest takes an indepth look at ICNE’s new program, and how it can be emulated by other companies to make their workplaces healthier and, in many respects, happier.

No Butts About It
Trudeau said the spark for ICNE’s program came last fall as the company was reviewing health insurance plans, both for its employees and its clients’ staffs.
It was decided, said Judy Davis, senior vice president of the company’s Employee Benefits Division, that it would be somewhat hypocritical of an agency that stresses the importance of wellness to those clients not to practice what it preaches.
Much of the early legwork came in the creation of a smoke-free work environment, said Rousseau, noting that the company worked in conjunction with Health New England — which had gone entirely smoke-free years earlier and has assisted many other companies with taking that route — to put a program in place.
There are several components to the smoke-free initiative, said Rousseau, including a new policy template stating that there is no smoking on company-paid time, and also a non-smoking affidavit to be signed by all new hires. There would be smoking-cessation reimbursements ($300 annually), and existing employees would be given a year to kick the habit.
Both Rousseau and Trudeau were anticipating some resistance from the dozen or so long-time smokers at the company (despite their best efforts to avoid the Big Brother issue), but to their surprise and relief, there was none. Indeed, a survey of employees revealed not only a lack of opposition, but the strong sense that employees were ready and willing to quit.
“This was scary; I thought there were a few people, diehards, who would really flip out,” said Trudeau. “But they didn’t. I think there was one person who said he just wasn’t going to quit smoking; the rest were ready.”
Creating a smoke-free environment not only made good common sense, but it was a big part of that ‘practice what you preach’ mindset, he continued.
“We sell health insurance … and if you happen to come to our back door and cross paths with three smokers, well, there’s a disconnect there,” Trudeau explained. “We also sell homeowners’ insurance, and people’s houses burn down from smoking mishaps. The whole thing is not something we want to be supportive of. We wanted to be solution-driven on this matter, and this was a nice solution.
“To be good examples ourselves, and say ‘we’re not just talking about it, we do it,’ is a real positive,” he went on. “But at the same, we can also be guinea pigs and find out what works and what doesn’t work ourselves so we can further relate real experience to people.”
While smoking was the natural place to start, those spearheading the health and wellness initiatives knew there would be other target areas, and they conducted a so-called health risk assessment to determine what they should be.
That assessment, which involved 30 participants and thus provided a corporate-wide picture, revealed several areas of concern. For example:
• 97% of employees didn’t eat the recommended daily amounts of fruits and vegetables;
• 55% were carrying too much weight;
• 29% had low-fiber diets;
• 13% had high blood pressure;
• 26% did not use good lifting techniques;
• 19% would drink and drive occasionally; and
• 45% did not exercise regularly.
With these numbers in hand, organizers then set about targeting some of the next steps, and decided to focus on cardiovascular issues, cancer prevention and education, accident management, and generating lifestyle changes.

Fruits of Their Labor
One of the first steps was the fruit bowl. It is filled every Monday morning, and often will have to be restocked long before week’s end. It is positioned in the kitchen, usually between the door and the snack machine, and thus it is giving many employees cause to stop, think, and spend 25 cents on a banana or plum instead of a dollar for a candy bar, said Davis.
Another step was an organized walking campaign called Every Step Counts, which kicked off May 1. Participants, usually going in groups, will devote some or all of their lunch break to walking in the area surrounding the company’s current headquarters on Park Street in West Springfield, near the expansive town green.
Pedometers have been given to all participants, and their collective steps are converted into miles, which are then used to chart the group’s progress in a so-called ‘virtual walk across America.’
Soon after the program started, the West Springfield group crossed over the Massachusetts border on this ‘virtual walk,’ said Jim Buker, a senior account executive in ICNE’s Employee Benefits Division, marathon runner, and fitness guru. Within a few weeks, the group had reached Florida. It then turned west, reaching San Antonio (tacks are placed on a map to show milestones), and then San Diego, before heading north to Washington State. It is now cutting back east toward Chicago.
Walking has become part of the culture at the company, said Rousseau, adding that this phenomenon has more than health benefits. Indeed, groups from the agency are now participating more often in fund-raising walks for nonprofit groups such as the Easter Seals.
Meanwhile, education is another area of focus, with program organizers working hard to put information into the hands of employees, through the in-house library of books and magazines that employees can borrow, as well as weekly company intranet health and wellness tips and news. One recent posting trumpeted the benefits of brown rice rather than white rice when it comes to lowering one’s risk for diabetes.
With the plan now in place for more than seven months, a focus on better health and wellness is becoming part of the fabric of the company, said Buker. But the focus on better health extends well beyond the eight-hour work day, he noted, which is the program’s real goal.
“The wellness program is starting to shift the culture — people are really get into it,” he said. “We started the walking program May 1. Already, two people have entered walking road races — one walked it, the other ran it — and a third … she’s out there running two miles a day now.”
The initial health risk assessment served to provide a baseline of information for program administrators, said Buker, adding that this snapshot, as he called it, helped decide which specific initiatives to put in place. In another six months, another snapshot will be taken to show what kind of progress has been achieved, and determine what the next steps might be.
“After a year, you take another corporate picture,” he said, adding that he expected it will reveal improvement with many of those risk factors. “We’ll certainly see a decrease in that 97% number on fruits and vegetables, for example. If we keep plugging away at that, if we keep talking about it, then hopefully we can bring that number down to 80% or lower.”
Exercise, and the need to do more of it, will likely always be a risk factor to be addressed, said Rousseau, adding that this need is already shaping plans for ICNE’s new corporate headquarters, to be created in the former Oaks banquet hall in Agawam. That facility will likely have a cardio room and shower facilities, she said, to encourage employees to take needed steps — literally and figuratively — to improve heart health.
“That will probably have a huge impact on the level of exercise, because it will make it more convenient for people,” she said. “Instead of just a walk, people can get on a cardio machine and give their heart a workout.”

Food for Thought
More than half a year after it was started, ICNE’s health and wellness program is “filtering its way into the subconscious,” said Trudeau, when asked to gauge the broad impact.
“In other words, people are thinking twice about that tradition of stopping and picking up a box of two dozen donuts for the office,” he explained. “And they’re saying, ‘jeez, do we really need a cake and three gallons of ice cream to celebrate someone’s birthday?’ It’s starting to bleed its way into the company a little bit.”
That’s what happens, he concluded, when a plan is simple, employees’ input is valued, and there’s nothing approaching the ‘full Big Brother.’
And that’s the key lesson that other companies can learn.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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