April 10, 2019
By Leslie Wireback, Chief Human Resources Officer, LCSWMA
Originally published in the Fall 2018 issue of the People + Strategy journal, a publication of the Society of Human Resources Management
Many organizations say they support the well-being of their employees and have programs that show they do, but the number of organizations where wellness, mindfulness, balance, and support for the well-being of all employees is ingrained into the DNA is not as easy to tout. At Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority (LCSWMA), we are part of that elite group of organizations where it is holistically part of who we are and what we do. To many outside of our small region, we are unknown; however within our industry we are known for our reputation of innovation and excellence and are nationally recognized for exceptional practices and continually pushing the boundaries of transitional waste management to provide superior service to the residents of Lancaster and Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. With that background, it should come as no surprise that we apply similar ingenuity, innovation, and excellence when it comes to leading our organization and providing for our employees.
How a Smaller Organization Steps Up
As a relatively small organization (110 full-time employees), we are faced with great challenges of trying to manage one million tons of waste annually, safely, and efficiently. It is our responsibility to provide the resources and work environment to ensure our employees have the means to excel and make great things happen each and every day. LCSWMA was an early adopter of wellness (at least for small organizations) by having an onsite fitness facility in the early 2000s. However, beyond having a fitness facility, one might not have been able to see how much LCSWMA valued wellness. The foundation of all of our employment practices is based on balance and overall well-being. LCSWMA is a municipal authority, however we have no taxing power nor do we receive any government backing on debt. We generate our revenue primarily through waste disposal fees and energy generation. In the employment space, we are generally viewed as competition within the government space, yet we operate with a business mind and philosophy. It makes it complex to position us competitively in the employment landscape with the comparative nature of government benefits and also the competitive nature of public and private compensation. Therein lies our practice of balance and well-being.
We work to offer a comprehensive benefit package that competes with the best of governmental benefit offerings, and also aim to match the private-sector market for compensation. Why? We are seeking talented people who are driven for success and want to maintain a balanced, community-oriented life. It is a choice that we continually need to reaffirm.
Given the current employment landscape, knowing who we are and who we want to work for us is critical. Even internally, HR staff has to regularly affirm and defend LCSWMA’s employment value proposition. Managers will tell us that they tried to recruit candidates, and the candidates say we cannot compete with what they are making. Immediately, we enter the debate of hourly rates, however, that is really not the crux of our hiring challenges. Candidates in our industry are generally working 70-80 hours per week, and we cannot compete with what they are making because they basically have two full-time jobs. We want employees who value balance in life and we do not want to have them working more than an average of 40-50 hours per week. That is one of our commitments to employee well-being. If that means we cannot hire candidates directly from our industry, we need to look elsewhere. In addition to a competitive rate and a balanced work schedule, we provide a benefit package that is worth an additional 45 cents on every dollar they make.
Annually, we examine who are our most successful employees and why are they successful? Why does that make our organization continue to succeed? It all can be traced back to providing employees with what they need to live well and support their family. The majority of our employees are providing the healthcare for their family, so the value of the benefits package is heavily weighted.
The hefty benefit package also includes a retirement plan that I have yet to see matched. Our employees are offered a defined contribution pension plan that after 90 days of employment that provides 7 percent of compensation in savings. Additionally, employees can contribute to a 457 Plan (pre-tax or post-tax in a Roth) up to the IRS annual limits and LCSWMA matches the first 5 percent in savings. Employees are fully vested after five years of employment. The retirement package is a huge benefit that contributes to employees having a balanced and well life. We are offering a benefit that enables employees to retire at age 60 and potentially have over a million dollars (based on an average employee’s compensation) saved in their pension to relax and enjoy their golden years.
Experiment and Refine To Discover What Works
With the foundation of competitive wages and a healthy benefit package, additional well-being components were added over the last decade. Since our foundation has a substantial cost, the supporting components were started very inexpensively. This is what many small employers experience. How can you do more with almost no budget? Engagement efforts such as hikes, biking, and internal competitions were introduced to engage our employees in activities that facilitated comradery and also focused on health. We mapped out walking paths around each of our facilities so that employees could easily fit in exercise over their lunch breaks or before or after work. We added wellness information to our newsletters and created health tips for our restrooms, so that wellness was always in front our employees.
Partnerships we already had in place were leveraged. Our health insurance carrier and brokers provided free resources on wellness, which included educational information as well as opportunities to provide in-person lunch-and-learns to our employees. Additionally, we joined other community members in a local coalition, Lighten Up Lancaster (LUL), which provided a collaborative on workplace wellness.
Through LUL, we were connected with a diverse set of businesses and governmental organizations that were trying to do the same thing. We quickly learned you did not need to reinvent the wheel. Learning through other organizations’ trial and error saved time and money, and many times organizations would share communications and initiatives for free. We leveraged these partnerships to enhance our wellness program and weave them into the DNA of LCSWMA. An additional benefit of the coalition is that it is backed by sound medical practices and influence through the support of the local healthcare system and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Awards were developed to recognize company’s efforts in wellness, and in order to qualify, completion of the CDC Workplace Scorecard is required. Not only does it rate your efforts, but it also provides guidance on how to advance health and wellness in your workplace. LCSWMA has worked diligently to achieve the highest level of standards in wellness and continue to maintain that level annually.
Despite receiving recognition for our wellness efforts, we wanted to continue to learn and improve. The first word in LCSWMA’s tagline is “Rethink” and that is what we did. When something failed, we took the opportunity to rethink, adjust, and make it better to fit our needs.
For years, initiatives were all driven by the HR department. When that became stale and unsustainable, we created a committee of employees from all of our locations who volunteered to help plan and brainstorm new and innovative ideas for the future. They provided feedback and promoted our initiatives throughout our organization at all levels. Committee members acted as Champions for different challenges we offered. Whether it was a step challenge, weight loss, or drinking more water, our committee members encouraged participation, kept employees motivated, and celebrated successes.
We offer programs such as a Community Supported Agriculture program where employees receive weekly produce from a local farm. Through the committee we learned about barriers, such difficulty for paying for the season up front, so we offered to pay upfront and had employees payroll deduct the cost over the 20-week program. Another barrier was employees thinking that each
delivery held more produce than they could use each week. We paired employees together and had them share the weekly bounty. It was a win-win for employees, LCSWMA, and the farmer. Our employees got local, healthy food, and we supported a farmer in our community.
ROI Depends on What You Value
Generally, the first question asked about wellness programs in the business setting is what is your ROI? Most often the answer is not clear. Wellness research will often state claims of $3 to $8 return per dollar invested per employee. ROI of wellness can be measured in many ways, and it can also become very complex. The simplest ways for us to determine our ROI are not in direct measurement, but in connection to our employee engagement, turnover rates, and healthcare premiums.
Our engagement scores continue to increase, realizing an 11-percent increase from 2015 to 2018. Additionally, our average turnover has been 12 percent over the last five years. Of all the tangible measurements, the most important to us is to have happy and engaged employees. The costs of disengaged workers and turnover would be much more than any expense we have for wellness programs and initiatives.
Healthcare was the most challenging to measure initially because as a small fully insured employer, we did not have access to claims information. We shifted our insurance to a municipal cooperative and self-insurance and have had better than expected performance each year, which entitles us to a surplus refund of premiums paid upfront. If our employees were experiencing greater than expected health costs, our efforts would not be paying off. We have averaged an 8.8-percent increase in healthcare over the last 10 years. Our trend is mirroring the rates of medical inflation trends nationally. Removing the volatility of health care premiums and having healthier employees is a win-win.
Employees have always had the benefit of company physicals, which is necessary for the commercial drivers and a benefit we extended to everyone for their health. We not only extended the benefit to everyone, but we enhanced it to include biometric screening to monitor employee health. Through this screening, we have had many examples of early warning and detection for glucose problems, high blood pressure, and even cancer. Employees who received the early awareness through their company physical are always grateful for the benefit we provide and appreciative of the commitment to their health.
Fortunately, with the positive experiences we had with our health insurance program and surplus funds, we have been able to utilize those funds to budget and expand our wellness programs. Each year we commit to a year-long wellness initiative for employees that rewards them for taking care of their health through physicals, dental check-ups, vision exams, cancer screenings, and visits to the Employee Assistance Program. In conjunction with taking care of their health, employees must also participate in challenges and choose to track exercise and/or nutrition to demonstrate their commitment to their health. We vary the initiatives each year, but they are always built on the same foundation.
Our wellness efforts have become so strong and woven into the fabric of our organization that two years ago, we made the move to combine our safety and wellness efforts into one initiative. Safety is a key component of who we are and what do. Despite having a great safety record, our safety program did not have the level of internal recognition that our wellness program did. We branded this promise internally as “Safe.Well. Happy.”
Our employees are committed to making LCSWMA a great place and helped develop an employee vision statement that represents who we are and what we value. This statement is impactful and highlights what we believe in. Anyone can brand a promise and create it with HR and marketing, but this statement came from our employees. It has created a connection with our employees that is invaluable. Everyone knows what the statement is and they were also part of making the statement come to life in our culture video. Defining our internal brand and promise to employees was the first step in defining who we are as an employer to enable us to better market ourselves to prospective employees.
Lead by Example
Our employees included wellness and balance within the definition of our culture, and that is a huge reason it works. They see it day in and day out. Our leaders, myself included, ensure that we are leading by example. I know I am not doing my best as a leader if I do not take care of myself. I have to prioritize it. It is just like managing any other area I am responsible for—it takes time and attention and must be constantly nurtured.
I ensure that even in the busiest of times, my staff sees that I pause and take the time to work out at lunch. It helps that it is with a personal trainer onsite, a convenience that LCSWMA offers, but a service I pay for myself. LCSWMA pays the trainer and my cost is payroll deducted. Packing a healthy lunch, snacks, and drinking 100 oz. of water everyday also shows my commitment to health. I find joy in journaling each morning in quiet reflection at home, and then I share with my team an inspirational quote for the day on our planning board. It has helped us stay focused on the things that really matter.
Working long hours every day does not get you ahead. You get ahead by making smart strategic decisions and doing the best by our people. The rest usually takes care of itself. Even if I am working on something that requires me to stay late or come in early, I reaffirm with my staff that it is not what I expect of them. I also try not to make the long days a habit. Our work is primarily Monday to Friday, and we have a half-day of operations on Saturday mornings, but our office is not open then. Our emails and phone calls all stay primarily within the core business hours. It is a testament to the balance everyone in our organization feels is a priority and knows that it is the best for our well-being as individuals as well as a company. One of my first bosses told me that it is what you do each day that matters, not how long you work each day. That stuck with me and is a value I believe in.
In summary, below are a few highlights of what helps LCSWMA live better to lead better:
- Support from the top. Executive leadership has to believe in caring for the holistic well-being of employees and must also support, encourage, empower, and lead by example.
- Listen to employees. Not all efforts are worth your time and money. Create a path of regular feedback from employees so that you know what is working and what isn’t. A simple way we do this at LCSWMA is an HR representative and an executive team member each spend a minimum of one lunch at each location per month. It is casual and no-cost to sit in the lunchroom and engage with employees to hear what they have to say.
- Make it easy. Not all employees are going to want to workout with a trainer, or take yoga, or eat healthy, but the key is to make it easy for them to want to try it. Offer programs and activities at times and locations that are convenient for employees. Cost can be a barrier, so choosing activities that are low cost or free increase the likelihood that employees will participate.
- Educate. Everyone has a different education level and a different understanding of what well-being is. Providing continuous education on how to lead a better life is important and simple. Employees are going to continually have to try to find ways to wellness that work for each of them. It is not one size fits all.
- Encourage. You do not have to be an expert to encourage employees to live a healthier life. Instill your company’s values in your employees, remind and encourage them on a regular basis, and change will happen. It is similar to the approach that the average smoker has to try quitting seven times before he or she actually quits. You want to continue to encourage the employees no matter how simple or how great the challenge is for them to be well.