At an American Express call center in Phoenix, a worker has been chewed out by one customer too many. In the past, she didn’t have any outlet for her stress and frustration, except maybe to grab a Snickers bar or a cigarette, or to complain to a friend or spouse. But now she has a healthy alternative. She can phone a licensed counselor sponsored by the company who will talk her through one of three stress-reduction methods, either meditation, progressive muscle relaxation or mindfulness, which is similar to meditation. She can do the two-minute version or she can go for a full 10 minutes. She can also opt for a pre-recorded version of similar exercises.
This is one of many wellness services that American Express offers to its 50,000 worldwide employees through a program called Healthy Living that it started in 2008 following the financial crisis. The company’s effective, empirically-based use of psychology in the workplace has won American Express the American Psychological Association’s first-ever Organizational Excellence award, says David Ballard, the APA executive director in charge of the awards. The APA is bestowing the prize this Saturday at a ceremony in Washington, DC, as it gives out its 10th annual Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards. Five other companies from both the for-profit and non-for-profit sectors will also get awards.
Companies apply through their local psychological associations. They fill out checklists and write essays, and a team of psychologists from the local associations visits each company. Then the local branches recommend winners to the APA, which analyzes the data and picks the winners.
Though the nominees are self-selected, the winners nevertheless offer great examples of employers who are paying extra attention to workers’ psychological needs, whether through company-funded life coaches and free Zumba classes or wellness programs that offer free on-site therapy sessions and meditation classes.
Here are the five 2015 winners:
Beehive PR in St. Paul, MN has 13 employees who represent clients like Verizon and the University of Minnesota’s academic medical center. CEO Lisa Hannum offers her team a range of wellness benefits, including a life coach named Mary Anne O’Brien, who runs an outfit called Live Dynamite. Hannum uses O’Brien’s services herself. She installed both a gym and a quiet room in Beehive’s offices and she meditates in the quiet room for 20-30 minutes a day, starting at 7am (she has three kids at home and it calms her down after the morning rush). When she started her meditation practice three years ago she would text O’Brien every day and receive a supportive message in return, like “Being kind to yourself radiates out and touches others.” Another practice Hannum adopted from O’Brien: burning a candle in her office all day long. “The illumination and the light is a visual cue to me to stay focused on what matters,” she says. She also keeps a small chalkboard on her office door where she signals colleagues that she’s in the middle of a “power hour,” an intense 50-minute work session that ends with a 10-minute break. Other employee perks intended to boost wellness: anyone can work from home or a remote location as long as they meet clients’ needs, and to stave off burnout Hannum doesn’t want staffers working more than 45 hours a week. On summer Fridays the office closes at noon. Beehive also provides Mac Powerbooks, gifts its employees tablets and picks up $50 per month in mobile phone charges. The firm makes a big deal of employee birthdays. On Brian Israel’s 40th, his cubicle was decorated with NCAA and March madness paraphernalia and he got $40 worth of tickets to his favorite team, the Gonzaga Bulldogs. “All of these things create a workplace that is both very supportive of our team, with a high level of engagement and accountability,” says Hannum.
LaSalle Network, a Chicago-based staffing and recruiting agency with 110 employees in four offices has taken some dramatic steps to help employees in distress, including supporting staffers who have gone through Alcoholics Anonymous, giving them time off to attend meetings. In one instance, the parents of an alcoholic employee asked CEO Tom Gimbel to help them stage an intervention, arranging for the employee to leave the office and go to a location off-site. It worked and the employee has been sober since, though he moved on from LaSalle after two years. Gimbel arranges incentive trips for everyone who works at LaSalle, including receptionists. This year he took the whole firm to Miami and South Beach from a Friday morning to Sunday during the fourth quarter, covering all expenses including chartered fishing boats. For two years he took staffers for a weekend in Las Vegas. The firm also celebrates what it calls “rebirthdays” for each employee, marking the anniversary they joined the firm with 100 balloons, catered food, speeches and a happy hour. “I want to give people experiences they wouldn’t have otherwise,” he says.
At Team Horner, a swimming pool supply distributor with 430 employees based in Fort Lauderdale with a manufacturing plant in St. Petersburg, Kim Kent, the wife of owner Bill Kent, started a kind of grassroots wellness program in 2012. She put together teams of a dozen employees who came up with their own ideas, like Zumba and yoga classes, personal trainers and a quiet room for meditation. The company converted a closet into a quiet room and it offers yoga classes every Friday in the tile showroom. “We use whatever space we can,” says Kent. The company also offers stand-up desks and ball chairs and what Kent calls “a certified well-being coach” who will put together a 90-day intensive program aimed at reducing stress, improving work-life balance and/or losing weight. Members of the sales team can take part in the program, communicating with the coach by Skype and phone. The company has even offered cooking classes, at employees’ request. What’s distinctive about the Team Horner program is that every initiative comes from the employees. Not everyone partakes. “We’re not forcing anything down people’s throats,” says Kent. “The leadership is on the side watching things happen and cheering people on.”