Should community banks provide wellness benefits?

healthy bowl of food

Businesses in every sector offer wellness benefits to employees, but what these programs look like and what they entail is unique to each organization. Some community banks are now using these added benefits to cut costs, attract talent or simply invest in their employees.

By Elizabeth Judd

If your community bank offers its employees free flu shots, gym membership discounts or blood pressure screenings, it has already ventured into the world of workplace wellness.

Wellness is a term that’s often misunderstood in a workplace context. Deb Smolensky, a global practice leader of wellbeing and engagement at insurance brokerage and consulting firm NFP in New York City, notes that when it comes to the broadest definition of wellness, “which may be nothing more than putting out fruit in a bowl for employees,” 90% of companies are participating. She estimates that the number of companies that boast a truly robust wellness program, where results are measured or incentives are offered, is far smaller.

Workplace wellness programs are an $8 billion industry in the U.S., according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The nonprofit’s 2018 survey of employer health benefits found that 37% of small firms and 62% of large firms offering health benefits give employees an opportunity to complete a health-risk assessment.

Wellness programs can be a way to attract the best and brightest, many of whom are looking for innovative employee benefits beyond the traditional medical and retirement offerings. In addition, under the Affordable Care Act, financial incentives exist for companies that offer workplace wellness programs. And with healthcare costs rising sharply, a number of community banks are beefing up wellness programs to rein in costs.

Abby Stoa, financial controller and HR administrator for $172 million-asset Farmers State Bank of Hartland in Albert Lea, Minn., says the fitness incentive that her bank offers employees was not intended as a recruiting tool but as an effort to encourage employees to stay active. “We offer health insurance,” she says, “and so, in a roundabout way, it’s good for the bank for employees to be healthy.”

The case for wellness programs

Jim Miller, vice president and director of human resources at $1.8 billion-asset Bank of Ann Arbor in Ann Arbor, Mich., assumed responsibility for his bank’s wellness program seven years ago. “Our thinking was somewhat self-serving,” he says. “We wondered: How can we mitigate the rise in healthcare costs by having our employees make better choices in terms of their own health and well-being?”

“We wondered: How can we mitigate the rise in healthcare costs by having our employees make better choices in terms of their own health and well-being?”
—Jim Miller, Bank of Ann Arbor

The answer was a comprehensive wellness program with everything from screenings to lunch-and-learn events, contests and an ambitious workout partnership to help employees exercise.

Because the Bank of Ann Arbor has a self-insured medical benefit plan, Miller views healthcare costs on a weekly basis. Although he acknowledges that he cannot prove cause and effect, he notes that within three of the past four years, Bank of Ann Arbor has seen double-digit declines in healthcare spending.

Amy Ritsema, co-owner of OnSite Wellness in Grand Rapids, Mich., works with Bank of Ann Arbor. She has seen studies claiming a three-to-one ROI for investments made in workplace wellness, though she remains skeptical. Given that healthcare costs continue to rise, a more attainable goal, she suggests, would be to decrease claims to the point where costs are flatlined.

Ritsema notes that wellness programs are “not an overnight sensation.” “It’s usually groups that have had programs for a minimum of three years—probably more like five or six years—where wellness is part of their culture that see an impact on overall claims,” she adds.

Experts say the best wellness programs are built around the needs of an organization’s particular set of employees. Ritsema is convinced that it’s worth paying a third party to send out healthcare surveys or run focus groups to pinpoint the wellness priorities of one’s own employees.

NFP’s Smolensky agrees, noting that the average wellness program sees only 30–40% participation. To raise engagement rates, she says, a program needs to be relevant and tailored to the demographics of a specific group of employees.

Smolensky points out that women may desire support for family planning and women’s health issues. Millennials, on the other hand, may value pet insurance or flexible work schedules, allowing them to engage more on social issues.

For banks just launching a wellness program, Miller suggests starting small. “Incent people to get annual physicals by giving them a $25 gift card if they do,” he says. “Even something like that might propel somebody to change a behavior that could save them from a heart attack five years from now.”

Boosting employee participation

Community banks can succeed with one or two wellness benefits that make sense for their particular culture. One example is $120 million-asset The Peoples Savings Bank in Urbana, Ohio, which offers its 28 employees a complimentary YMCA membership—a benefit that has been available since a nearby facility opened two decades ago. Nearly half of the community bank’s employees take advantage of the benefit, says Beth Ropp, vice president of lending. “We want to let them know we’re concerned about their health,” she adds.

Although benefits do not need to be flashy, wellness programs can turn off employees if they’re not well-designed—or worse yet, smack of Big Brother. Working with a third party can be a good way to reassure employees that there’s a privacy fence around health data collected by employers.

Miller has found that cash incentives can work wonders. Bank of Ann Arbor, for instance, offers an $80 a month discount toward healthcare premiums for participating employees who earn a required 1,000 points in the company’s wellness program. When spouses or domestic partners participate, the monthly incentive rises to $120.

One unique aspect of Bank of Ann Arbor’s wellness program is its partnership with local nonprofits that provide education on an array of topics, from how to care for aging parents to lectures on seasonal depression and other mental health issues.

Bank of Ann Arbor has also pledged to help employees with their financial health. “If you’re stressed out because you have to deal with your parents, and you look at your checkbook and it’s short,” Miller says, “those things factor into how an employee is going to be engaged in the work we do here.”

Making sure that the benefits are available to everyone is a high priority for Farmers State Bank of Hartland, which gives employees $50 per month for working out at least 12 days during the previous month, Stoa says.

“People who don’t go to the gym really appreciate the fact that [our exercise benefit still gives them] an incentive to work out.”
—Abby Stoa, Farmers State Bank of Hartland

What began as a benefit to defray the costs of a gym membership morphed into a benefit for anyone who exercises consistently. That’s because those at the community bank realized that “not everybody has the opportunity to get to a gym, and some people just like to run on the treadmill at home,” Stoa says. “I’m a mom with three little kids at home. I don’t have a lot of opportunity to get to a gym. People who don’t go to the gym really appreciate the fact that they still have an incentive to work out.”

A holistic solution

Many see wellness programs that concentrate on physical health as a crucial first step. More ambitious and comprehensive are well-being programs that address everything from stress reduction to volunteering and even diversity and social inclusion efforts, Smolensky says.

Smolensky prefers the term “well-being” over “health” or “wellness” because it’s more holistic and suggests a broader more inclusive approach. “If you have a program but you’re in a toxic culture,” she says, “the wellness solutions a bank puts in place don’t go very far.”

She notes that while programs that aim for mental and emotional health are getting much-deserved attention, it’s equally important to recognize how these programs can go beyond behavioral health support. They can help employees with skills that improve focus, resiliency, and even their ability to listen and respond to customers.

“For a community bank, it’s really critical to take the idea of mindfulness or mental fitness training and bring it forth in terms of connection and compassion and empathy as a business imperative,” Smolensky says. In this way, she says, well-being programs are not just a way to stem healthcare costs or attract and retain employees. Instead, they’re central to a community bank’s business objectives.

“If all of your employees really practiced awareness and emotional intelligence, building connections and deep listening” Smolensky says, “think how it could elevate your business.”

Elizabeth Judd is a writer in Maryland.