Promoting Health and Collaboration at Schwan

When Scott Peterson began working for The Schwan Food Co. LLC as an executive vice president and chief human resources officer nearly five years ago, he envisioned a collaborative work environment where employee wellness would be deeply ingrained in the corporate culture.

As a company primarily known for selling sodium-rich frozen food products such as Freschetta pizza and Mrs. Smith’s desserts, adopting a wellness initiative is an effort to transition into an increasingly health-conscious frozen food market. With the launch of its LiveSmart brand in 2006, marketed as a line of healthier, low-calorie products, the company is forging a modern identity.

While he rarely uses the word “I,” Peterson was a force in making the more than 60-year-old Minnesota-based company an alluring place to work. He took the privately held, multibillion-dollar company with more than 15,000 subsidiary employees in the U.S. and focused the business on creating a companywide employee wellness initiative.

It’s working. The company received the 2012 Health at Work Award, sponsored by the ComPsych Corp., an international employee assistance provider, for its employee health and wellness initiatives. Last year Schwan also was named one of the healthiest employers in the Twin Cities by the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal.

Employees have access to rewards programs and wellness initiatives that promote health and exercise, discounts to local fitness centers and in-home exercise equipment, healthy recipes shared in an online forum, rewards for completing physical activity and access to stress-management programs.

“We can only be innovative in so many areas, and one of the areas I challenge my team to be innovative [in] is in the health and wellness space,” Peterson said. “When employees are engaged in their own health, you tend to have a higher energy level. When you feel better about yourself, you feel more confident, which then allows you to be productive, add value and contribute ideas.”

Peterson said to successfully launch an employee wellness program, a company needs to have a strong, branded corporate culture. Throughout his more than 30 years in HR, he said he has consistently aligned himself with businesses that developed a strong brand through a passionate consumer base, which is present in the packaged goods industry.

“I like working for a company where I can tell people that I work for a company that has certain brands that they actually consume and enjoy,” he said. “I’m always out trying to advance the company’s brands and products to everybody I meet.”

Before joining Schwan, Peterson served as the senior vice president and head of human resources for Select Comfort Corp., a specialty retailer that manufactures the Sleep Number bed and bedding accessories. He also held HR leadership roles with Life Time Fitness Inc. and the Quaker Oats Co. after earning his bachelor’s degree in liberal arts from Marquette University and a master’s degree in industrial relations from the University of Minnesota.

“What I like about the [HR] function is that you are really able to make a business impact based on the power of great talent and great people,” Peterson said.

Greg Flack, Schwan’s president and CEO, said he had a personal stake in bringing Peterson to the company in 2008. He said Peterson’s personal alignment with a business’s brand, coupled with a deep understanding of a specific market’s trends, distinguish him from a traditional CHRO.

“Scott’s business acumen, competitive spirit and his willingness to be a catalyst for better business results is what sets him apart from what people would perceive as the traditional HR leader,” Flack said. “Scott has been extremely passionate about initiatives within our company that focus on encouraging an aggressive competitive spirit and company pride.”

Developing a Wellness Culture
Peterson said he has seen the benefits of employee health initiatives throughout his HR career, which reinforces his resolve to make it a corporate priority at Schwan. His experience appears to reflect the consensus among many U.S. employees. According to a 2013 survey by Virgin HealthMiles Inc., a workplace health engagement company, and Workforce magazine, 77 percent of employees believed that “health and wellness programs positively impact the culture at work.”

Also, in the survey of about 1,300 businesses and 10,000 employees, seven out of 10 employees said health and wellness programs positively influenced their work culture, and 57.5 percent of respondents said their participation had a positive impact on their colleagues, friends and family.

“One way an employer can show that they care about their people is to provide them with support surrounding their own health,” Peterson said. “That resonates with all employees — but particularly with employees coming out of school who want to work for a company that cares about them.”

Modeling the company’s healthy food initiative after its launch of the LiveSmart product line, Peterson has helped develop employee health initiatives such as the 2013 Get-Fit 500 Summer Wellness Challenge that ran from June 3 through July 31. During the challenge, employees formed work teams, which could have included spouses enrolled in company health plans, to compete with one another based on weight loss and physical activity.

Participating employees earned points for just about any activity they performed, and prizes were given to the top three teams in the weight loss and physical activity categories. Further, for participating in the challenge, employees who were enrolled in a company health plan had $50 deposited into their health savings or health reimbursement account.

“Employers need to focus on multiple avenues of influence — for example, work environment, workplace culture, individual health resources and community outreach — in order to be successful,” said Stephanie Pronk, the health transformation leader for health and benefits at Aon Hewitt, a consulting firm. “Employers must incorporate health into daily work lives and always make programs easy to understand, accessible, timely and fun.”

When employees are offered incentives for getting physically active, Peterson said they are more likely to change their personal wellness patterns and integrate the program into their daily lives.

Schwan is not alone. More companies have started focusing on employee wellness as the Affordable Care Act nears implementation. The mandate has put pressure on companies to promote a healthy work-life balance for employees, and wellness initiatives such as the summer wellness challenge have become more common among big businesses.

However, while nearly 90 percent of employers offer wellness incentives, financial rewards or prizes to employees who work toward getting healthier, according to a 2013 survey from Fidelity Investments and the National Business Group on Health, many of these companies have not found a way to measure these programs’ effectiveness.

Peterson is working with a team at Schwan to develop more objective metrics for the company’s wellness programs that he hopes to unveil this fall. Until that time, he will continue to rely on self-reported employee surveys to gauge the program’s impact.

For the company’s 2012 summer wellness challenge, 25 percent of participants reported they increased their physical activity, two-thirds reported they lost weight, and more than 90 percent said they planned to sustain the new level of activity, according to company reports. In total, the participants lost 2,700 pounds and logged 2,624,093 minutes of physical activity last year.

The significant number of employee participants in the summer wellness challenge, coupled with the large amount of employee feedback through surveys, is an indicator of the high level of employee engagement, Peterson said.

“He led the company’s new focus on employee engagement with the clear goal of linking our engagement efforts to business performance and strengthening the company’s culture throughout our organization,” said Flack. “This work started the design and execution of our first companywide employee engagement survey, in which 92 percent of all employees participated. We still receive participation rates near 90 percent four years later.”

The high employee engagement level is just one marker of the company’s successful wellness initiatives. Peterson appears to have avoided some of the common pitfalls of instituting a corporate wellness program.

“The biggest challenges in instituting corporate-run wellness programs are the engagement of employees and leadership,” Aon Hewitt’s Pronk said. “At times, employers want to deliver a little bit of everything instead of focusing on doing a few things well. Instead, employers should focus on a few behaviors to impact and design incentives for the greatest impact.”

Connecting to a Wide Employee Base
Peterson said the power of a team is always greater than that of an individual, and that belief extends beyond his personal management strategy. He said connecting employees will yield collaborative power and fuel innovation. “Employees understand the why of what they do. If they understand why a certain project will help in a specific way, they will be more engaged in that work because they see why it is important.”

But communicating with and engaging employees scattered across North America can be difficult. Peterson said Schwan’s employees are geographically dispersed. When launching and promoting companywide programs like the health and wellness programs, developing an efficient communication pipeline is paramount to success.

Much of the workforce is sprinkled throughout small towns in the U.S. Many employees are selling frozen food out of home-delivery trucks in various locations, while others are packaging, selling and delivering to grocery stores, schools and restaurants across North America.

“Each one of our subsidiaries is unique, and each requires a broad range of expertise and talent in marketing and sales, manufacturing and logistics, food science and product development, and administrative and leadership roles,” said Flack.

For many employees, a company’s ability to communicate about companywide initiatives is a concern. In most cases, the dominant form of communication continues to be through email, with 81.8 percent of employees reporting it as the main communication tool, according to the aforementioned Virgin HealthMiles and Workforce survey. However, 51.6 percent of employees reported feeling that they are not aware of, or need to know more about, employers’ health and wellness program offerings.

For many Schwan employees who either drive or interact with customers throughout the day, checking email isn’t always possible. To bridge the communication gap and facilitate companywide initiatives, Peterson helped design and implement community partnerships.

For its 2012 summer wellness challenge, for example, Schwan partnered with local YMCAs to offer employees an opportunity to work on a wellness team with co-workers.

Further, employee groups stationed in small towns across the country become linked to other employees in different towns through friendly competitions. Working in collaborative groups to accomplish a common goal helps employees feel more connected to one another and to the brand itself, Peterson said.

Developing local partnerships doesn’t just benefit Schwan employees. “We tend to be a larger employer in smaller communities around America,” Peterson said. “We take a major responsibility in improving and enhancing the places in which we operate.”

Local organizations get support from employees who are able to develop their leadership skills by participating in local initiatives and volunteer opportunities. Further, by developing community relationships, Peterson said, Schwan is able to spot potential leaders in the employee base who demonstrate alignment to the company’s values and brand.

“When we look at our leaders, we not only expect them to be strategic leaders, operating leaders and engaging leaders,” he said. “We want to give them an opportunity to engage in the community. We provide great development opportunities through serving on nonprofit boards.”

Shaping the Future
Peterson said his early brush with Schwan is an example of his consistent belief in its values. When he moved to Minneapolis about 20 years ago, his family was a Schwan customer, and his favorite treat was the occasional bowl of ice cream.

As Schwan works to develop metrics for its wellness programs, Peterson said he is proud of what the initiatives have accomplished thus far, and collaboration has been one of the most important tools to implement and promote a positive and productive workplace.

“I’ve learned over the years that you can’t do it yourself; you’ve got to surround yourself with talented people,” he said. “But you also need to play a role in helping connect the dots, and help people see the way they can best learn is to connect with their peers and counterparts.”