Walking the walk: Wellness that works
At Business Risk Partners, employees set their own goals and team up for group hikes
By Elisabeth Boone, CPCU
Members of the Business Risk Partners team gather for a hike. Back row, from left, are: Kim Kwort, assistant underwriter, professional liability and Mark Wilson, director of national sales. Front row, from left, are: La-Keya Daniels, assistant underwriter, management liability; Heather Ottoson, underwriter, professional liability; April Salvas, underwriter, management liability, Alexis Cogan, underwriter, insurance agents and broker errors and omissions; and Eric Chorney, underwriter, professional liability.
Most of us want to be fit and healthy, but some of us use up more energy figuring out how to avoid exercise than we would burn if we actually "just did it." New Year's resolutions and the approach of swimsuit season can be powerful motivators . . . until the alarm goes off when it's still dark outside and our good intentions crawl back under the covers for another half hour of snooze time.
At Business Risk Partners, a managing general underwriter in Windsor, Connecticut, that specializes in professional and management liability insurance, employees don't just talk the talk when it comes to fitness—they walk the walk. They set individual goals and actually stick to them, thanks to a wellness plan that emphasizes personal accountability and doesn't place an undue burden on participants.
The inspiration for BRP's plan came from a group of employees who routinely walk during their lunch break. Lisa Doherty, chief executive officer, observed that several of the agency's 22 employees, including herself, wanted to get healthy.
"One of my work goals for 2012 was to get in shape so I could become a more effective leader," Doherty says. "I feel better when I'm in shape, and I perform better in my job." Doherty made it a priority to promote a healthy workplace and to extend the momentum by encouraging employees to pursue a healthy lifestyle outside of the office.
Kim Kwort, a BRP underwriting assistant, agreed to serve as coordinator of the wellness initiative and to take responsibility for tracking employees' weekly progress toward their goals. To keep things simple, Kwort and Doherty decided to set up the plan in a series of six-month intervals. Each participant sets a measurable goal for the period and is encouraged to stay on track with inspirational and motivational quotes and suggestions, plus information about upcoming events. Each Monday the participants fill in a simple spreadsheet to chart their progress and return it to Kwort.
A big advantage of the plan is that many activities are offered on site so participants don't have to leave the office and drive to a health club or yoga studio. Among the available options are health and wellness screenings, nutrition classes, yoga sessions, hikes, and other fitness activities that take place at lunchtime and during working hours.
Third time's a charm
The current fitness initiative at Business Risk Partners isn't the agency's first effort to promote health and wellness at the workplace. "We launched our first fitness challenge in 2008, and we did it again in 2009," Kwort explains.
The program isn't highly structured, Doherty comments. "We're just trying to kick start the effort by encouraging people to do whatever they choose to pursue as a fitness activity," she says. "Each participant sets his or her own goal; if someone says he wants to watch less TV because he thinks that will improve his health, that's fine."
Employees appreciate the program's flexibility and like having the freedom to choose their own path to wellness, Kwort remarks. "We've gotten 100% positive feedback from the 21 employees who are participating," she says.
"At the start of the current challenge, last July, we offered wellness screenings that were done in our office by the local Visiting Nurses Association in the office; they checked blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol. Participation was strictly voluntary, and no one had to get on the scale," Kwort says with a chuckle. "At the end of this challenge, we'll probably ask the VNA to come back and repeat the screenings for participants who want to see if their metrics have improved."
The BRP employees who are taking part in the fitness challenge don't have to leave the building to enjoy a brisk workout, Doherty says. "Just down the hall from us is a really nice gym, and when the challenge started there was a lot of traffic between the gym and our office. Later on that began to wane somewhat, so we need to provide some motivation to help people get back on track. We'd like to bring in a dietitian or nutritionist to talk about making healthy eating choices; we think that would be a good way to inspire people to continue what they've started toward achieving their goals."
As noted earlier, most of us want to be fit and healthy but often have trouble motivating ourselves to "just do it." Once we do get into gear and climb on the cross trainer, hop on the bike, or go for a jog, we start to feel good. Our heart is pumping, our muscles are flexing, and we seem to feel a fog lifting from our brain. All kinds of scientific evidence demonstrate that the mind-body connection really does exist, and that exercise benefits us not just physically but mentally and emotionally.
As Doherty asserted, staying in shape helps her be a more effective leader. She's observed a similar phenomenon among the employees who participate in the fitness challenge.
"The pace in our office is fast and furious, and as in most small businesses everyone works hard to do their best for our clients," she says. "We encourage employees to take a break during the day to do their workout. Some employees are surprised by that because they come from big insurance companies that don't have that kind of flexibility. But everyone comes back from that fitness break re-energized, charged up, and with a clearer mind to focus on their tasks. Even if it's just a walk around the parking lot, it really makes a difference."
Small businesses such as Business Risk Partners are ideally positioned to launch fitness challenges, Kwort asserts. "The principals can support health-related goals, which in turn support work-related goals," she says. "The healthier you are, the better you feel about yourself and the less you'll be absent because of illness, and you'll be more focused and productive at work. We're also benefiting from increased camaraderie among the employees who take part in the challenge."
Adds Doherty: "As a business owner, I think the idea of starting a workplace wellness initiative may seem daunting at first, but you can keep it simple as we are doing. It's a bonus to have an employee like Kim who can balance the responsibilities of her 'real' job with the extra work of serving as administrator for our program."
A walk in the park
Early in the fitness challenge, the participating employees did leave the office for one activity, Doherty says. "Kim was encouraging me to organize an adventure walk, so we picked a day but didn't tell anyone in advance when it would be. Everyone was bugging Kim to tell them what day we'd be going, but she protected me and kept the secret.
"The day we chose was a Friday in late September, and we had 14 people signed up for a walk in the park," Doherty continues. "When the day arrived, it was pouring. I could see people walking around the office and asking Kim if the walk was going to be canceled. A friend of our family once remarked that we never change our plans because of the weather, just our clothes. That's been a family credo ever since, so at about 11:00 a.m. I e-mailed everyone and said that, rain or no rain, we would be departing at 12:30. We sloshed down the street and into the park, and we walked about three and a half miles. Needless to say, everyone was soaked through, and when we got back we all had to change clothes," Doherty says with a laugh.
Shooting photos in the rain is at least as challenging as hiking in it, but some brave souls were determined to record the BRP Adventure Walk for posterity—or at least for some good laughs later when everyone was warm and dry.
Fitness isn't all fun—but there's plenty to go around when colleagues rise to the challenge and don't mind getting drenched for the cause.
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