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Think About It: Make time for employee health

Creating a work atmosphere where it's easy to make healthy life choices – including eating right and exercising – can help employees have an enriching work experience and lead to lower health-care costs for the company. Find out how Trek discovered this in the latest column from OIWC exclusively for SNEWS.

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We all know a tragic story. Maybe it’s about someone who has a terrible disease or someone who has died too young. For the employees at Trek, the tragic story happened in 2007 when a 20-year employee of the company, at 41-years of age, died suddenly in his sleep from factors related to obesity. He left behind a wife, two young daughters and untold numbers of friends and colleagues who mourned his loss. And for the employees and management team at Trek, it was a turning point.


To address the growing national obesity issues affecting the United States and the state of Wisconsin, where Trek is located, the company began offering onsite health risk assessments for its employees in 2005. There was no obligation for employees to participate in the free assessments and only 21 percent of them did. Attempting to up the ante and increase participation, Trek offered $100 in cash to any employee willing to take an assessment in 2006. Participation levels increased to 61 percent of employees participating, but it still was not enough.

In 2007, after the dealth of the long-time Trek employee, managament was rocked and Trek President John Burke began thinking deeply about the culture of health and wellness at the company differently than he had in the past.

Within weeks of this tragic event, the president held a company-wide meeting, telling employees that holding people accountable for their health and promoting a culture of wellness was NOT about saving money, but about saving lives. This event, coupled with unsatisfactory participation rates in previous health assessments, led to a formalized wellness program.

Realizing that weight loss and weight maintenance were two of the most critical health-related issues for its workers, the management at Trek needed to find a solution to motivate employees to take their health and wellness seriously.

Reality TV in Reality

In 2007, the reality TV show The Biggest Loser had already been on the air for three seasons. Although some might argue the merits of time spent watching reality TV, there is little doubt that this show has helped shed a light on the plight of those struggling to gain control over their health.

For the overweight people at Trek, the experience was no different. Trek, realizing the value of competition in goal setting and achieving, made a spinoff of its own called “Trek’s Biggest Loser.”

Like the TV show, contestants (employees) are split into teams of five to eight people. The 12-week competition focused on making lifestyle changes, including changes to nutrition and physical activity. There was no Jillian Michaels here, but what the employees at Trek got was even better: cash incentives, flexible workout options and better overall health. Who needs Jillian when you’ve got all that, plus you can sleep in your own bed at night? 

Around 20 contestants participated in the first Trek’s Biggest Loser in 2007. Then, and now, the program cost participants $150, but if the employee met the goals of the program, they were reimbursed $50. Not bad for a start.

To prove that they were serious about the program, management at Trek designed the program to be offered onsite during work hours and employees were given time during the day to participate. Having this kind of flexibility during the workday was worth more than its weight in gold to employees who were parents of young children. Talk about a work/life balance dream come true. The first program proved to be so successful that Trek’s kept the ball rolling.

The Metamorphosis of a Program

As of 2011, “Trek’s Biggest Loser” program is still going strong. Trek continues to offer some sort of health- or fitness-related program each day of the week during work hours. The offerings, which are free and open to all employees, not just those participating in the “Trek’s Biggest Loser,” include cardiovascular classes, strength training, agility and nutrition classes.

Participants in “Trek’s Biggest Loser” contest still pay a $150 fee, but now if health goals (determined by both the contestant and his or her trainer) are met, Trek reimburses the entire $150 – a zero-sum game with major benefits to the employee. The trainers, classes and online access are all included in the fee.

At the end of the contest, the top man and top woman, determined by the percent of body weight and body fat lost, receive free fitness classes for a year, $100 toward healthy entrees in the Trek café, and a free entry to the next round of “Trek’s Biggest Loser.” Members of the top team, based on attendance and percent of weight and body fat lost, each receive a $50 credit for the Trek café or toward Trek product.

The Bottom Line

By any measure, the results at Trek have been startling. In just four years participation in the program has more than sextupled (yes, it is a word), from 19 participants the first year, to 120 in 2011. But that’s just the start. Overall, employees at Trek have lost a total of 1,300 pounds off their collective weight – an average of nearly 14 pounds per participant.

Though Trek’s president emphasized the program was more about saving lives than saving money, the company’s health claims cost per employee, per year has decreased steadily from over $7,400 in 2008 to less than $6,900 in 2010. Couple that with the fact that Trek has started spending less per employee in Short Term Disability claims, from a high of $160,000 in 2006 to less that $70,000 in 2009, and you’ve got a human resources winner in more ways than one.

Looking at the numbers, it’s easy to see why this program would be considered a success, but at the end of the day, it’s what employees think that counts most. Patty, a Trek Employee since 1991, said she’s sold on the concept and its effectiveness. She has nothing but glowing reviews for the program.

“Since I’ve been taking these classes I am much more alert. It helps and I think shows in my work,” Patty said. “A lot of women have young kids and have other responsibilities before and after work so I know they appreciate it too.” Chalk that one up as a win for the working parents.

Mike P., a manufacturing group leader at Trek and an employee since 2001, paints an even more vivid picture with his story. Prior to joining in “Trek’s Biggest Loser” program, he was visiting the chiropractor two or three times per month with chronic knee pain. Since joining the program, he has lost 85 pounds, has no knee pain and only visits the doctor only for an annual physical. His eye-opening moment came when he realized how significantly his life changed from his weight loss.

“My kids keep telling me how much more fun they have with me now and I just completed my first triathlon,” Mike P. said. “I would never have done that if I hadn’t worked here.”

Trek launched an online component as part of the 2011 program, which allows employees to track meal and fitness goals online. There are some fitness class time challenges since Trek has both administrative and manufacturing sides, but in order to promote success of the program, the company began offering some classes to after hours, which suits the variety of work schedules.

It’s no secret that good nutrition is a key piece of the health and weight-loss puzzle, so Trek also re-vamped its café to make it easy for people to make healthy food decisions. Each day, there is a “Biggest Loser Approved” food option for breakfast and lunch and the prices were lowered at the salad bar to encourage employees to choose healthy options.

There is no doubt that the loss of an employee and friend in the prime of life can send shivers up the spines of even the most fit, but anyone would be lucky to have a boss who cared as much about his employees’ health and wellness as he does about the bottom line. The story of “Trek’s Biggest Loser” offers us all a glimmer of hope.

– Steph Teleen

Stay tuned for monthly columns from the Outdoor Industries Women’s Coalition featuring companies big and small, with examples of how they successfully implemented work/life balance programs for their employees. If your company has a program you are proud of, email to be featured in an OIWC SNEWS column.