Set up a wellness program for restaurant employees

Obamacare is here to stay, so it’s time to get serious about planning. For many restaurants, there’s no escaping the rising costs that come with shouldering a greater share of employees’ health-care coverage. But there are ways to manage the burden and minimize its impact, including one strategy common in other industries: employee wellness programs. These programs are based on the premise that creating healthier employees leads to more affordable health care, while also producing benefits like improved productivity, recruitment and retention. “Wellness programs make good business sense because taking care of your employees makes good business sense,” says Roslyn Stone, principal at Corporate Wellness, a Stamford, Connecticut-based firm that specializes in helping companies implement health services programs. “Regardless of whether employees are insured or what type of background they have, wellness programs produce benefits.”

What’s wellness
Wellness usually refers to overall mental and physical well-being, and the wide variety of workplace wellness programs reflects the broadness of the term. These range from offering medical services like biometric screenings to incentivizing healthy habits like running and yoga. While some companies focus on encouraging healthy behaviors, others offer programs designed to discourage harmful habits like smoking or overeating. Some wellness programs even focus on improving employees’ quality of life with benefits like free educational courses or vouchers for movies or concerts.

What all wellness programs have in common is the assumption that healthier and happier employees make for better business. The benefits that follow from targeting wellness can take many forms, from fewer sick days and improved customer service to more affordable health insurance and fewer health claims. “If done well, we know that wellness can translate into a better work environment that directly impacts the guest experience and, therefore, the bottom line,” says Christine San Juan, vice president of people development at Boloco, a 21-unit, Boston-based burrito chain that subsidizes gym memberships and organizes a company team to participate in bicycle races.

Wellness 101
1. Assess your needs, and ask your employees what they want. Check with your insurer for wellness perks. Otherwise, look for a third-party vendor to help you run an online Health Risk Assessment or an onsite health fair.
2. Design a plan. Be creative, and offer simple ideas such as setting group goals for weight loss and exercise, pay a bonus to staffers who quit smoking, or eat healthy meals together. Offering incentives—from gift certificates to vacation days—for taking part can keep employees engaged.
3. Offer flu shots. Vaccinations during flu season are a cheap and easy way to prevent illness and reduce lost work and productivity during restaurants’ busiest season.
4. Evaluate your program. Talk with your team and find out what’s working—and what’s not. Then tweak your plan accordingly.

Wellness in restaurants
The workplace at most chains is very different than the typical corporate environment, so adapting wellness programs to the industry poses challenges. “One challenge is that individual restaurants may not have many employees, which can make it difficult to do on site programs cost-effectively,” says Stone.

Still, some chains are finding creative ways to make wellness work. Qdoba Mexican Grill, for example, provides financial incentives to encourage healthy living. The company offers annual biometric screening that measures whether employees are tobacco-free and reports on glucose and cholesterol levels. “Participants can earn up to $520 a year—$1,040 for team members with an enrolled spouse or domestic partner—in insurance premium discounts for full participation,” says Erica Kitzman, director of human resources for the 627-unit chain, which is based in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. “If a team member has completed the biometric screening and didn’t meet the criteria, they pay the baseline premium for medical coverage. Those who don’t complete their biometric screening pay $10 more per paycheck for medical premiums.”
Additionally, some Qdoba employees participate in a program that tracks physical activity. They can earn rewards of up to $400 a year depending on their level of activity. “Ultimately, Qdoba hopes that emphasizing the individual health of team members will help prevent potential healthcare issues, reduce absenteeism and help control rising healthcare costs,” says Kitzman.

Though Qdoba wouldn’t disclose specific figures, Kitzman says its wellness programs require a significant financial investment, as well as substantial administrative and IT support. The company has created an online enrollment portal and promotes its wellness program to employees through an enrollment guide, direct mail postcards, email reminders and monthly webinars.

Noodles & Company, a 328-unit chain based in Broomfield, Colorado, also incentivizes biometric screening among employees. In addition, the chain, which serves casual cuisine from around the world, has long had a program that gives its corporate employees, field support and general managers significant freedom in choosing how to pursue greater wellness. “Each employee in the system gets a certain amount of ‘balance bucks’ every six months that they can spend on anything from entering a road race to buying a ski pass, a gym membership or a new pair of running shoes,” says Mandy Melby, the company’s communications manager.

Wellness programs won’t fully offset the impact of rising health-care costs in the short-term, but HR managers are confident that they can make a significant difference to the bottom line over time. Most companies, however, are more focused on the immediate benefits for everyone involved. “Having a healthy work-life balance creates a better, more supportive culture, which also leads to improved productivity,” says Melby.


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