Once You Learn About Mendocino County, You’ll Never Look at Employee Wellness Programs the Same Way Again
Prior to joining CSAC last fall, I spent over a decade working for a nutrition education organization where I witnessed the heralded birth of our own workplace wellness program. When an organization employing a dozen registered dietitians and health advocates struggled to keep its employees engaged in wellness, I realized I was about to witness something great when I started learning more about Mendocino County’s Working on Wellness Program.
Maybe it is the gorgeous surroundings, an ingrained competitive spirit or an irresistible desire to save money. Nevertheless, Mendocino County’s Working on Wellness program (known locally as MCWOW) is thriving when many employer-based health promotion programs have floundered.
Dating back to 1995, Mendocino County has long had an employee wellness program as part of its self-funded insurance plan. However, to curtail increasing medical claims costs, the County decided in 2011 to take a more aggressive approach to engage employees in the adoption of healthier lifestyles.
“Mendocino County Working on Wellness has been tremendously successful, not just in improving the lives of our employees and their families, but to increasing productivity, creating a healthier work environment and also employees who are happier,” said Carmel Angelo, Chief Executive Officer of Mendocino County. “It’s an investment that helps improve the health of all 1,200 of our employees by giving them incentives to take action.”
With incentives of lowered out-of-pocket healthcare premiums or reduced deductibles, more than 80 percent of County employees participate in the Working on Wellness program. That’s an enviable adoption rate that saves both the employees and the county money in the long run. And cost savings are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to benefits.
“MCWOW allows our employees to embark on a health journey from wherever they’re at,” said Katie Ford, Human Resources Analyst and MCWOW program administrator. “I happen to know that there are a lot of employees who have made healthy changes through the program, either they’ve quit smoking and they’ve stuck with it, or they’ve lost the weight and are feeling great.”
In exchange for completing an annual Biometric Health Screenings, Health Risk Assessment and supplemental activities throughout the year, the Mendocino County Working on Wellness incentive program offers $500 off the individual’s health plan premium or the deductible for the following year.
Through the annual health screening and monitoring, as well as the exercise components of MCWOW, Auditor-Appraiser Nathan Maxman maintains his cholesterol levels without prescription medication. And some of the other employee results have truly been amazing. “My husband and I, after we got married, made a pact for him to quit smoking and for me to lose weight,” said Mary Marmon. “Thanks to Working on Wellness, we’ve both been successful.” Marmon credits MCWOW’s educational components and mindfulness activities in her success.
“The Biometric Screening process really opened my eyes to certain health aspects of my life I needed to focus in on,” said Sherriff’s Office Dispatcher Stephanie Jensen. Through the MCWOW coaching program and working with her doctors, Jensen lost 180 pounds and gained a hobby. “I’ve found a passion in fitness and that’s running. I’ve run nine full marathons and an ultramarathon, and a whole bunch of half marathons now that I would have never done before.”
“We’re not expecting perfection,” said Ford. “We’re hoping we can give employees enough tools and resources to make smart decisions, so that they can extend the quality of their lives, they can feel better about themselves and they can come to work and feel great.“ Those tools range from team challenges to onsite classes, webinars, health coaching, and a lending library; employees log and track their progress through an online portal and leaderboard.
Deputy County Counsel Michael Makdisi counts the daily step challenges and the annual Walktober challenge as his favorite parts of the wellness program. “I like it (MCWOW) because it’s a group activity and it gives me the motivation to think about my health on a daily basis. It also holds me accountable not only to myself but to others in the group I’m working with.”
MCWOW is not just improving employee health, but the culture, too. “When Mendocino puts out the opportunity for these walk challenges– that drives me. I like the motivation to get outside and walk and the little bit of competition among coworkers,” said Chris Kier, Employment & Training Worker III with County’s Health & Human Services Agency. “The fact that Mendocino County takes the time and effort to support us, give us the opportunity to stand up, get out and walk, then make that part of the job is really beneficial.”
Additionally, MCWOW has enabled Mendocino County to weather some of its tougher economic times. “Some people might think that wellness programs are the first thing to be cut when times are tough, and we found that actually, they help employees through those times,” said Ford. “They help them manage stress, become more resilient. So during those times we actually amped up services, but creatively. There’s always something you can do to help the employees.”
This Mendocino County program is a recipient of a 2018 CSAC Challenge Award, which spotlights the most innovative programs in county government.