WELL ENGAGED: United Natural Foods supports active lifestyles for its employees – a tai chi class at company headquarters in Providence is a regular thing – as it strives to help them live healthier lives, all the while bringing down health care costs. Pictured above from left are: Dennis Daubney, Lauren Colbath, Nelson Osborn, Neil Banning, Kevin Daglieri and Kirthi Mani.
While wellness initiatives increase in importance in today’s business world, they always have been important at United Natural Foods Inc., headquartered in Providence. And it’s easy to see why. Simply put: wellness is in the company’s DNA.
Billed as “the leading independent national distributor of natural, organic and specialty foods and related products,” UNFI representatives said that promoting health and wellness has been a priority for the company from Day One. “It’s ingrained in who we are,” said Senior Benefits Analyst Nicole Wright, a member of the national benefits team based in the Providence office, who describes her role as helping to design and administer employee benefit programs. “Being a distributor of natural foods, it goes with our corporate culture.”
Additionally, according to Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer Eric Dorne, the crux of that corporate culture is that UNFI cares about its community – and this stretches from the community it serves to the suppliers it works with and its 8,500 full-time employees.
“We use wellness as [a] connection to our associates. We care that people are healthy, that they have … access to the best services that the industry has to offer. You can’t have a company culture that says ‘we care’ and not have a robust wellness program,” said Dorne.
UNFI achieves this approach by looping employees into accountability through thorough testing that nets them monetary benefits for results – rather than incurring penalties for nonparticipation. Wright estimated that 98 percent of company employees participate in the wellness initiatives, which have continued to change and grow over the past five years.
Most notably, Wright said, the biggest impact has come in the past year from two major changes: shifting from participation-based programs to an outcomes-based one, and partnering with Bravo Wellness, a third-party vendor, to execute the program. Now, through on-site testing administered by Bravo Wellness, employees can take advantage of monitoring of key biometric indicators: blood pressure, body mass index, LDL cholesterol and tobacco-use status, producing a health-risk assessment.
Statistics provided by UNFI showed that from 2013 to 2014, employee participation has resulted in some impressive improvements in these critical health markers. Over that time, UNFI reported that employees lost more than 18,000 pounds; 2,009 participants moved to a healthier blood-pressure category; more than 20 percent of associates marked as Obese I or II by BMI have moved to a healthier BMI, and four employees who formerly reported an obese BMI are now reporting a desirable BMI; more than half the participants who reported pre-diabetic or diabetic glucose levels have now decreased their risk; and fewer than 19 percent have more than one health risk factor.
“With these outcomes-based results, we can engage our population a little bit better,” said Wright, explaining the rationale for the shift.
Both Wright and Dorne stressed that employee accountability – from the top down – has been crucial to the success of UNFI’s wellness endeavors. “Our executive team has visibility and some decision-making around the wellness program,” shared Dorne. “We obviously all endorse it … throughout the organization.”
In addition to the screenings facilitated by Bravo Wellness (and the resulting reduction in health care premiums for the employees and, by extension, for the employer that boasts a healthier workforce), each UNFI office has some flexibility in implementing supplemental measures.
At the Providence office, for example, Weight Watchers meetings take place on-site, and free, fresh organic fruit is available in the break rooms daily. Recently, the Providence office engaged in an innovative wellness challenge as employees participated in a “virtual walk” to the company’s Hudson Valley, N.Y., location, which is opening up soon. “It’s on the honor system, but people log their steps each week and they are moved along a virtual path to the Hudson Valley location and then back to Providence,” Wright said. “Wellness is definitely becoming more of our culture.”
The approach is echoed nationally across the UNFI offices in other areas, too. Anne Thumann, who serves as the regional human resources director for the Mountain Pacific Region based out of Denver, said that from her perspective, she sees a clear understanding of the importance of wellness among the associates.
“It’s embraced throughout the organization,” she said, speaking of why UNFI has been so successful in the implementation of its wellness initiatives. “I’ve always been cognizant of leading a healthy lifestyle, but being at UNFI has made that leap for me and my family to where it’s just something we do now. … I started looking differently at food and how I served it to my family.”
Of late, Thumann’s job has included drafting a “wellness playbook” for the company, a document that’s now in its final stages of approvals with a companywide release planned. She said that the playbook will work to help “give HR managers ideas, activities and education on things they can do in their facilities to promote wellness and healthy living for their associates.”
Both Wright and Dorne cited the fact that wellness ultimately means cost avoidance for the company in many senses – a healthier workforce leads to fewer absences, increased productivity and decreased health care costs. That’s a no-brainer for anyone in business. But for UNFI, it’s indisputably about more than the bottom line – it’s about people. “You can’t just say what you believe in,” said Dorne. “You have to live it. And you have to live it every day.”