General Mills: Serving Up Wellness

For the better part of 87 years, General Mills Inc. has built a business based on offering healthy breakfast and snack options to hungry customers.

So it is unsurprising that the manufacturer of popular food brands such as Yoplait, Green Giant and Cheerios is among the standouts when it comes to employee wellness, a practice that has become top of mind for many talent management practitioners.

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As a commitment to safety, plant employees are encouraged to stretch prior to their shift to help prevent injury.
Source: Photo courtesy of General Mills.

The company’s Minneapolis-based headquarters are in many ways traditional corporate offices, packed with conference rooms, desks, chairs, printers, copy machines and the like, as well as about 5,000 busy employees who struggle to balance the demands of work with an active and healthy lifestyle.

That’s why General Mills’ headquarters includes its own well-being infrastructure: an on-site optometrist, dentist, dermatologist, cardiologist, physical therapist and nutritionist. What’s more, the company offers employees a surfeit of healthy food options, on-site fitness centers, walking workstations, an outdoor running path and — because it is Minnesota — an ice-skating pond. Courses in meditation and mindfulness are also on hand.

General Mills’ talent executives say integrating such offerings in the workplace allows employees to better manage their work and personal wellness, while the company reaps rewards in the form of happier, healthier and more productive employees.

But implementing a culture of wellness on an organizational level takes more than setting up a standing desk or adding quinoa to the cafeteria. Building such groundwork took the better part of 30 years — a period in which the definition and acceptance of corporate wellness experienced a vast evolution.

“What we have found works here is what I call the trifecta of programming, which is: make it fun, make it easy and make it about the competition,” said Dr. Julia Halberg, General Mills’ vice president of global health and chief medical officer. 

Wellness World

Corporate wellness is a $6-billion-a-year industry in the United States, according to a 2014 research report by Rand Corp., a nonprofit think tank. In 2012, half of all employers with at least 50 employees offered a wellness program, according to the report, with the other half saying they planned to start one in the near future.

Many trace the start of corporate wellness to the period immediately following World War II. During that period through the early 1970s, company executives interested in maintaining their health installed gyms and employed personal trainers, according to published reports.

The late-1970s and early 1980s saw the rise of smoking cessation programs. In 1976, Congress created the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, bringing the importance of a healthy lifestyle to the national forefront. More recently, the rise of technology and a renewed enthusiasm for personal health has jolted wellness back to the top of the agenda.

Jonathan Edelheit, director of the nonprofit Corporate Health and Wellness Association, said organizational wellness programs have especially taken off in the past 10 years, with the expectation that the number of companies offering programs will double in the near term.

More recently, wellness programs have taken on new heft thanks to the passage and implementation of the Affordable Care Act. “Now, employers see this [wellness programs] as one of the only solutions to keeping costs down and maintaining being able to offer health insurance for their employees,” Edelheit said.

Wellness programming at General Mills began in 1985 with Dr. James Craig, then the vice president of the company’s health and human services division. His first program, “TriHealthalon,” was geared toward improving the lifestyle and public image of General Mills’ sales staff.

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Many employees participate in the annual Run of the Mills 5K run/walk outside its Minneapolis headquarters.
Source: Photo courtesy of General Mills.

“I think the biggest thing was smoking,” Craig said in a company promotional video for the program. “You couldn’t see across the room because of smoke.”

So General Mills started providing personalized health risk appraisals, with the sales team recording their accomplishments on activity record sheets. Activities were focused on smoking cessation, seat belt use and promotion of healthy lifestyles. Competition between sales regions made for a more exciting program, with awards presented to regions and individuals who did best. 

A Fit Future

With the rising popularity of wellness programs, there are many vendors entering the field.

Jonathan Edelheit, director of the Corporate Health and Wellness Association, said this variety will make it very difficult for companies to choose a vendor, so they must choose carefully.

Paying special attention to services is important, he said, as programs could not align with the employee lifestyles. If an employer implements a program that is very technology-based, for instance, it could be an issue if employees don’t have home computers. The program would then not be used to its full potential.

“There’s no cookie-cutter approach,” he said. “You have to pick the corporate wellness program that’s right for your specific company culture and the type of employees that you have.”

Other questions Edelheit said to ask are: Does what this company offers fit my corporate culture? Will our employees use it? What reporting is this company going to provide to us so we can measure the success?

Measurement is especially important because upper management will want to see the return on investment. This measurement is made easier by wellness programs that involve wearables, which are already growing in popularity, Edelheit said.

However, it’s important to choose a technology platform carefully. Some of them haven’t been designed from the user experience, so they might have little to no use, Edelheit said.

A company “might pay a lot of money and implement wearables and then find out one to two years later that they actually got no ROI, where there could be a platform out there that actually does have really good engagement.”

Lauren Dixon

Incentives for doing well included jogging suits, savings bonds, company stock and rebates toward health insurance premiums. After two years, the program saw a 5 percent increase in healthy lifestyle behaviors and less absenteeism.

In the 1990s, the company’s Health and Human Services division was renamed Health, Safety and Environment, with an enhanced focus on employee safety. In 2010, this was moved to the supply chain made up of the company’s manufacturing base. When Health, Safety and Environment moved to the supply chain in 2010, the company created Global Health to oversee its wider corporate wellness efforts.

The human resources function has always been the overseer of General Mills’ wellness efforts. Jacqueline Williams-Roll, the company’s senior vice president of global human resources, said from a structural perspective, this has been important in integrating initiatives with talent and organization strategies.

Although Global Health is a function of the human resources division, HR stays fairly hands-off when it comes to wellness. While Williams-Roll oversees Global Health’s functions, her main role is broader talent acquisition, retention and management.

Creating Culture

A big part of General Mills’ legacy of corporate wellness are its on-site clinics. The first on-site clinic at General Mills, focused on occupational health, opened in 1956. The company’s clinic offerings have since changed with more specialist functions. Such amenities are offered at the company’s Minneapolis corporate office as well as its office in nearby Golden Valley, Minnesota.

With an on-site clinic at each of these locations, specialists rotate, allowing employees the convenience of seeing an optometrist, dentist, dermatologist, cardiologist, physical therapist, life coach, women’s health specialist, men’s health specialist and nutritionist. Halberg said some of these doctors are company employees while others are contractors.

Clinic services are available free of charge to all full-time employees, who can make appointments in person, over the phone or at on-site kiosks that are designated for the clinics. Halberg said General Mills’ leadership doesn’t closely measure the cost of providing these clinics. “There’s an inherent value there that’s not easily measurable but important,” she said.

In addition to on-site clinics at the two main offices, all General Mills manufacturing plant locations have LifeClinic health stations for employees to monitor weight and body mass index, and check their blood pressure. Health records can then be made, tracking individual progress to share with employees’ doctors.

Healthy offerings in the cafeterias provide more nutritious options that could be harder to find when eating out. Fitness centers are found at both the Twin Cities locations and in several plants around the world, Halberg said.

Walking workstations allow for employees to walk on a treadmill for one mile per hour while doing tasks such as checking emails. Signing up for a 30-minute slot helps employees keep moving throughout the day, which Halberg said is helpful because “time seems to be a very precious commodity for everyone.” Walking and cross-country trails and an ice-skating pond are also available.

General Mills has expanded its wellness culture in a number of different ways, even trademarking its own real-time health assessment, “The General Mills Health Metric,” about seven years ago, Halberg said. Ten questions are asked about employee’s general health in regard to sleep, safety, nutrition and exercise, in addition to measuring blood pressure and cholesterol. Individual employees are not tracked, Halberg added.

Everything is measured within about 10 minutes, and employees are given a health number, which tells their risk factors and encourages them to find an area of health on which to improve through a health coach and other resources.

More recently the company has launched a healthy-eating initiative associated with its Green Giant brand. The program, Go Giant, aims to encourage employees to increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables through weekly challenges over a five-week period.

Originally, the idea stemmed from an increase in gym memberships associated with insurance rebates. Priscilla Zee, a marketing manager at General Mills and member of the Go Giant campaign, said the idea was to have a marketing campaign that would provide a similar insurance incentive for consumers but through healthy eating rather than exercise.

The Green Giant brand marketing team submitted the idea to an internal marketing and innovation contest called Big Bold Experiment. These proposals, submitted by General Mills’ internal teams, were meant to encourage connection between the General Mills brands and its consumers.

Thus, the Go Giant challenge emerged, with Fitbits as the chosen prize for those who completed the program. “So instead of providing a payment incentive via insurance, we decided to pick an incentive that people could get excited about and continue to help support the journey of a healthy lifestyle,” Zee said.

This prompted the Green Giant brand team to partner with the Global Health department to focus on the health of employees. Nicci Trovinger, associate marketing manager at Green Giant, said research has found that internal wellness teams are experts at designing programs to change consumer behavior. In this case, the consumers were General Mills’ own employees.

By combining the Green Giant brand team with Global Health, “it really was an integrated partnership to get this program from idea into execution,” Trovinger said. The Green Giant brand team developed the program, leading the marketing plan to generate engagement. The team ensured the use of the Green Giant brand would be in line with brand standards.

Prior to the start of the program, the teams implemented a launch plan. This was designed to increase awareness by having a table set up at the employee benefit fair, handing out fliers, showing videos for the General Mills internal TV network, and placing stickers on office coffee cups, among other promotional activities. The team also created a survey to gauge employees’ vegetable consumption before the program began.

Between Jan. 20, 2014, and Feb. 23, 2014, General Mills had a different challenge for each of the five weeks. Those who successfully completed the challenge received Fitbits to help continue their healthy habits.

During the first week, “Swap It” participants focused on swapping out a main dish, recipe ingredient, side or snack for a fruit or veggie.

In week two, “Veggify Your Meals,” the company pushed for the consumption of five cups of fruits and vegetables a day.

Next was “Try Something New,” which challenged employees to taste a new fruit or vegetable to establish a wider variety of ones participants knew they enjoyed.

Week four, “Spread the Love,” intended to help someone employees know live healthier lives through fruit and vegetables consumption.

Finally, week five, “Eat the Rainbow,” asked that participants try to represent every color of the rainbow through their food each day.

Throughout the five weeks, the Go Giant team met to troubleshoot and discuss unexpected roadblocks. It used General Mills’ internal social media website, “Connect,” as a community for participants, where they could post questions and pictures. In addition to social messages, email blasts were sent out with tips, links to external resources and reminders for the next week.

To help foster competition, the team created a weekly leaderboard, which showed rankings of different company divisions competing in the program. “People really embraced it,” Trovinger said, “and that helped spread participation and excitement for the program.”

When participants had questions about nutrition, a nutritionist was available to spend time on Connect to address questions. The consumer call center also was equipped with information that would assist in answering questions about the contest.

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Dr. Juila Halberg, vice president of global health and chief medical officer.
Source: Photo by David Bowman Photography.

As the challenge came to a close, the team compiled a list of participants who completed the program. A post-participation survey allowed the team to understand how behavior toward fruit and vegetable consumption changed.

In the end, more than 5,000 employees across 57 divisions participated in the program, executives said, with roughly 65 percent completing it. About 95 percent reported being satisfied with the program. Employees averaged four cups of fruits and vegetables a day, increasing their consumption by an average of 34 percent, according to company executives.

What’s Ahead?

In addition to implementing wellness initiatives at its Minneapolis offices, General Mills has instituted a culture that allows its local offices to set up their own programs. General Mills supports this through the use of “Champions,” or individuals throughout the company’s nonheadquartered offices who work on healthy initiatives outside of their normal job.

These workers are not closely regulated; they are volunteers. Halberg said there are hundreds of them across the country at different General Mills divisions. Champions reach out to Global Health with any questions or concerns, and Global Health can then work with them to create programming that will appeal to the most people at that division.

No formal policies are in place for how champions and Global Health collaborate. Rather, “it’s really about the passion,” Halberg said.

Another wellness initiative is Walk in Her Shoes, hosted by Join My Village, a philanthropic program by General Mills that’s in partnership with the humanitarian organization Care USA. Walk in Her Shoes, a program to encourage employees to track their steps, took place May 6-12. A daily goal of 8,000 steps corresponds to the distance women and girls in the Join My Village program walk for basic needs such as water and school. The goal is educating General Mills’ employees of the struggles others face around the world and connecting co-workers.

Halberg said wellness programming at General Mills aims to have a global focus, while fostering healthy competition between divisions by getting employees up and moving.

It’s programs like these that General Mills’ talent executives say has made a profound effect on the company’s culture, in turn driving engagement and retention.

Williams-Roll said that a large part of employee retention has to do with culture. Wellness programs are a vital part of that culture. Employees want an “acknowledgment and a commitment that while we [as a company] certainly have work to do for our company and our shareholders, we certainly want to enable our employees through an environment and a culture that allows them to get that work done in a way that works for them,” she said.

‘We certainly want to enable our employees through an environment and a culture that allows them to get that work done in a way that works for them.’ 

— Jacqueline Williams-Roll, senior vice president of global human resources, General Mills Inc.

 While Williams-Roll said General Mills doesn’t directly quantify the correlation of employee wellness with retention, she said its wellness efforts have positively influenced employees to stay with the company. “We wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t think it really had a positive impact,” Halberg added.