20 Years of Social Impact Wellness: What Pays Off and What Doesn’t

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February 1, 2018 will mark the twentieth anniversary of my work to build a digital communications company offering media and tools to help companies and organizations keep up with rapid changes in technology and cultural shifts that influence the way people think.

So much has changed since 1998! At the same time, a few key threads have remained consistent across the journey. There’s no doubt that today’s social impact culture has transformed the way we all want to spend our time and energy. In today's workforce, employees want to be part of a company that cares about them as human beings.

We are all operating in a world where work, life, community, and wellness have converged. We need to embrace social impact wellness as a key to our personal and professional success. 

As business leaders, we are exposed to a lot of talk about wellness and community engagement programs. I recall in 2003 that a couple of small business owners told me I was wasting money and cutting into profits for providing health, wellness, and community perks. Today, though, it’s become an expectation of the workforce. 

So how can caring about your employees’ wellness and social impact pay off for you as a leader in your organization? As I learned through a lot of trial and error, some workplace perks work better than others.

Here are 20 years of insights, summed up in five photographs and five lessons learned. 

Exhibit A: The Walking Workstation

Verdict: Worth it, but not for the reason you suspect

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In 2008, with the hope of helping one employee's back problem, I bought a treadmill desk for the office like this:

 

The team was thrilled when the treadmill desk was delivered. It was a great day in the office, and morale was punched up to a high. And for a few weeks, the team tested it out through walking and working. And then the novelty sort of faded away and the treadmill wasn't used that much. But, interestingly, morale settled out a little higher than it was before the day the desk had been delivered. I don’t think it was a coincidence. Buying the desk signaled to employees that as a business owner and CEO, I cared about their wellbeing and was willing to invest real dollars in office equipment that could help them get healthy. In fact, that treadmill desk brought out a big desire for the team to have standing desks, sans treadmill. Turns out, standing while working improved not only health and wellness, but also productivity!

Exhibit B: The Pull-up Bar

Verdict: Worth it—for me as a leader!

In 2006, I bought this for the office:

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Pull-ups between meetings? Yes! I have always loved doing pull-ups. I confess I bought this piece of equipment so I could get a quick work out a few times a day to extend my triathlon training. I did not expect anyone else to use it. Interestingly, though, by demonstrating my own commitment to fitness through my actions, I wound up inspiring others to use it, too. Without my saying a word, several employees started popping up on the bar a few times each day. I was so happy! Looking back, I realize that’s what leadership is all about—inspiring employees to follow your lead without always telling them what to do. 

Exhibit C: Family Fitness

Verdict: Totally worth it.

 

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In 2007, I started paying for employees and their families to have memberships at the YMCA of Greater Providencethrough the company. 

My employees loved it. It was a great way to support wellness and support a great local nonprofit. Not everyone elected to take advantage of the membership, but even those who didn’t greatly appreciated the strong signal that the company understood that they had lives outside of work and that family is important. The fitness membership wound up being a terrific recruiting tool, too. 

Exhibit D: Don’t Mess With My Rolfing

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Verdict: Worth it … just don’t take it away

 In 2011, I began arranging for a Rolfing therapist to come to the office a few times a week. Whoa this was awesome! If you’ve never experienced this form of body therapy, you really must do it, by the way. It is super healthy and feels great. 

The only downside to this was that the benefit had to be cut after I sold my company and rebooted it later in a more virtual office environment. So, I highly recommend Rolfing as an employee health and wellness benefit. Just be sure to keep it around because it is addictive in the best possible way. 

Exhibit E: Expanded Menu of Perks

Verdict: You can’t ignore employees’ basic needs and pleasures

Here were a few of the benefits wrapped into our employment packages:

  • 100% employer-paid health insurance for individuals 
  • HSAs, offered well before other small businesses were doing it 
  • Employer contributions to 401(k)
  • Paid maternity and paternity leave
  • Social impact activity opportunities, including a corporate donor-advised fund, giving to nonprofits, volunteering, mentoring, and time off for serving on boards
  • Healthy food frequently catered into the office, always paired with cake and candy to keep things fun and real 

Final Verdict: We need to embrace social impact wellness as a key to our personal and professional success

All of these things had their pros and cons, but what was most important about offering a broad menu of perks was the sense of purpose, caring, and social connectedness it fostered among employees. People felt they belonged because there was something at work for them beyond just the work. 

What did all of this do for the business itself? The business grew because of its positive social impact culture. As proof, my Rhode Island-based company was competing with larger firms in Boston and New York, but still we were highly successful with our recruiting and retention and our productivity, too. 

And we got noticed. The company was a three-time winner of the prestigious Alfred P. Sloan Award for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility. This distinction ranked us in the top 20% of employers nationally in terms of flexible work programs, policies, and culture. We also received the State of Rhode Island Minority Business Enterprise of the Year Award. In 2011, the Providence Business News named us one of the state’s best places to work. In addition, our online products twice won the Council on Foundations’ Wilmer Shields Rich Awards Program, which recognizes and encourages excellence in communications by foundations and corporate giving programs.

As I reflect on the past 20 years, I am even more convinced that social impact culture will be a critical factor in the success of companies in the decades ahead. We are all operating in a world where work, life, community, and wellness have converged. We need to embrace social impact wellness as a key to our personal and professional success. That's the best way to do good for others and do better for yourself, all at the same time.