A Foolish Perspective: Sam Whiteside on Starting an Employee Wellness Program

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The Ascent sat down with Sam Whiteside, chief wellness officer at The Motley Fool, to discuss her thoughts and opinions on employee wellness programs.

Samantha “Sam” Whiteside is the chief wellness officer at The Motley Fool in Alexandria, Virginia, and a leading expert on all things health and wellness. She has a master’s degree in Public Health Leadership from UNC-Chapel Hill, a Bachelor of Science in Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise from Virginia Tech, and numerous wellness and fitness certifications.

These include Certified Personal Trainer, Health Education Specialist, Exercise Physiologist, Worksite Wellness Specialist, Functional Aging Specialist, Youth Exercise Specialist, Schwinn Cycling, Tabata Training, Yoga for Trauma, Yoga for Backs, and Mental Health First Aid.

Sam Whiteside, chief wellness officer at The Motley Fool.

Sam Whiteside, chief wellness officer at The Motley Fool. Image source: Author

We sat down with Sam to ask her about the benefits of having a workplace well-being program.

The Ascent: First of all, what is an employee well-being program?

Sam Whiteside: An employee well-being program is one that is inclusive of all wellness needs -- it goes beyond just physical wellness and traditional programs. It includes fitness, sure, but it also includes mental well-being, nutrition, and eating more plant-based foods, opportunities to connect with your community, positive behavior change, and disease prevention as well.

It’s not just having free snacks or a pedometer challenge every few months. It goes beyond all of those things and really encompasses every facet that can make a person feel sound in body, mind, and spirit.

“ not just having free snacks or a pedometer challenge every few months. It goes beyond all of those things and really encompasses every facet that can make a person feel sound in body, mind, and spirit.”

The Ascent: What are the benefits of an employee well-being program?

Whiteside: A really well-rounded wellness program has a ton of different benefits. Some are what I’d call “hard” benefits -- you can track them, measure them, and analyze them. For instance, typically we see that every $1 invested in our employee well-being program will return at least $3 back to the company. There are a few reasons for this.

First, when people make positive changes in their lives, it’s not restricted to just their work lives. They make a positive change (nutrition, for instance), and it impacts their off-work hours and potentially even their loved ones who live in the same household (that are most likely on our health insurance).

These positive behavior changes result in fewer sick days, less hospitalizations, and reduce presenteeism (which is defined as when people are in the office but are mentally or emotionally checked out because of stress or sickness).

Second, productivity typically increases as happier and healthier employees are more open to building relationships and to working in groups. We’ve seen this happen time and time again at The Fool. A mentally and physically healthy employee is more productive and is more apt to participate in team-building and culture-based activities, which increases company morale and output as well!

Third, we definitely see a decrease in claims drivers derived from chronic disease. We focus a lot on health promotion and stress management, and so we also see fewer employees with things like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Our medical program is self-funded, so we save a lot of money by reducing our out-of-pocket medical claims.

One of the “softer” benefits is something that I call “intentional acts of collision,” which is where we set up ways for employees to bump into each other more or collaborate more through wellness programming. For instance, we have something called the Fool Olympics, where people of different backgrounds and functions can participate in a wide variety of fitness and non-fitness events.

The result is that you have employees that have often worked together for years but have never actually “met” in person. This is bound to happen more and more as distributed and remote work becomes more prevalent. Now people that haven’t officially met are doing push-up challenges and speed puzzles together, bringing that relationship/camaraderie value back to the company in the form of better or increased output.

The Ascent: You’ve mentioned mental health a bit. Tell me more about how our focus on mental health has changed in the past five years or so.

Whiteside: The last decade or so, the wellness industry as a whole has shifted more to focus on the mind-body space, so it’s opened up a lot of opportunities -- not just for fitness professionals but in the vendor space as well. Those trends get picked up by businesses that know the value of taking care of their people and thus allowing us to experiment by bringing on more brain health supplementary benefits and perks.

Anxiety, depression, and PTSD are issues that, in the past, employees and employers haven’t focused on as much and truly shied away from. You can’t always see these issues with your eyes -- issues can be bubbling up and all of a sudden dramatically impact people’s ability to do good work or to work from home (if they can at all), and this is a really significant issue.

When I started at The Fool, I made it my mission to begin to take down cultural barriers to accessing care for our brains by talking about my own mental health journey, encouraging others to do so in public ways, and making it known that everyone must take care of their mental health. Now, as an industry, we are all looking for opportunities to help support people and to help provide them with the resources to tackle some of these once-overlooked diagnoses.

Yoga has done a pretty good job at addressing the lack of a mind-body connection, but it goes further than that. Mental health in the United States has always been separated from the rest of the healthcare system, so it’s made finding solutions harder for people and employers. Today, we’re in a better place.

For instance, United HealthCare now has a relationship with TalkSpace, which provides free access to virtual counseling and certified mental health care therapists. Benefits like virtual doctors and access to talk therapy often now have no copay or a very small copay, which is great because we’re trying to remove the obstacles or barriers for people to access mental health solutions.

Prior to the pandemic, people may not have felt comfortable going into a doctor’s office or walking into a clinic, but now they can access a lot of these services virtually in the comfort of their own home.

The Ascent: What’s one way COVID-19 has changed The Fool’s well-being program?

Whiteside: One major way COVID-19 has adjusted our program has been the transition of moving in-person fitness classes and personal training to a virtual setting. For example, in the last few years, we’ve offered an array of classes -- one of our most popular has been our Tuesday and Thursday yoga classes. This was in-person and so was really limited to people at our HQ office in Alexandria, Virginia. Now with these yoga classes being virtual, we have Fools turning in from Colorado, California, D.C., and even Japan and Australia!

The Ascent: What are five affordable well-being benefits SMBs can offer their employees?

Whiteside: There are so many things employers can do that don’t cost a ton of money. You really should get to know your employees because things like their age, their discretionary income, their geographic location, etc., will all impact which could be the best benefits for them. But here are a few suggestions:

  • At-home meditation apps: I highly suggest paying for, or providing access to, meditation apps. Two favorites are Headspace and Calm. During the holiday season, these apps are normally discounted as I’ve seen subscriptions for as little as $49/year!
  • Virtual fitness subscriptions: Buy each of your employees a virtual fitness subscription like Les Mills On Demand. It includes unlimited recorded yoga, pilates, dance, weightlifting, spinning, HIIT, and more types of classes. The options are awesome, and a subscription is around $115/year. If you don’t have much space, and/or if you don’t want to go to the studio or gym because you're not comfortable anymore, this is a great alternative!
  • Subsidize healthy and sustainable eating: I love the idea of produce delivery to people’s homes. Very low cost and promotes one of the most important parts of nutrition -- eating veggies! There’s a really cool company called Misfit Market, and they deliver “imperfect” veggies to your door so you’re also helping with food waste and sustainability. By providing a service like this directly to your employees, you are encouraging them to eat a more plant-based diet consisting of nutrient-dense foods and drastically increasing the variety of foods that they might not eat normally themselves. It’s about $40 every two weeks -- give them an allowance or a stipend and let them figure out how to use it.
  • Provide a list of free resources: Yoga with Adriene is one of my favorites of all time. Her content is completely free via her YouTube channel, she brings this energy that is calming but energizing, consistently creates engaging content, and has the mantra “Do what feels good!” She is perfection. Search for yoga for low backs, yoga for neck and shoulders, yoga for beginners, yoga for GI distress -- it’s all there! The Nike Training Club app is free and should be downloaded to your phone immediately. With endless options for workouts and programs, you will never get bored again. You can search for workouts by type, duration, favorite trainers, etc. I really love this app; it’s one of my favorites!

The Ascent: All right, Sam, give me one thing to avoid in 2021.

Whiteside: I would highly encourage most people to avoid stability balls for your chair. They don’t support your lumbar region, and oftentimes people end up hurting their back or their hips. A better solution would be just to sit less and move around more -- get up every 30-45 minutes, even if it’s just for a loop around the living room. Your back and hips will thank you.

Thanks so much for your time, Sam! If you’ll excuse us, we’re going to take a quick lap around the block before we get back to work.

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