Metro Detroit companies get creative on health perks

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News
Employees fill the dance floor at United Shore during a dance break at the company headquarters in Troy. (Steve Perez/ The Detroit News)

Every Thursday at 3 o’clock you’ll find Sarah Lang on the dance floor doing the Wobble or jamming to 90s throwbacks. She doesn’t own a dance studio or emcee parties. Rather, the 28-year-old is a marketing coordinator at United Shore in Troy, which organizes daily dance breaks.

“I try to wear my tennis shoes so I can break it down a little more,” she says. “You do break a sweat.”

The mortgage lending company is one of many employers in the Metro Detroit area encouraging their employees to bust a move of some type during the workday. And while employer-provided health benefits have been around the past few decades, more companies are thinking out-of-the-box when it comes to healthy perks, workplace wellness experts say.

“You’re going to see a large difference in what I call ‘worksite wellness programs’ in the past 30 years and what they’ve manifested into today,” says Cindy Bjorkquist, director of health wellness programs at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

Back in the ’80s, employers focused on health assessments that helped employees manage their blood pressure, cholesterol and disease risks, Bjorkquist says. Now, companies are turning to technology — offering free or discounted fitness trackers to gauge sleep and physical activity — and they’re monetarily rewarding healthy behaviors. Blue Cross Blue Shield, for example, has a program called Be Well, where employees can earn up to $25 a quarter if they walk an average of 6,000 steps a day.

David Bye, 31, a project lead for Blue Cross, participates in Be Well. While walking along the Detroit RiverWalk during a sunny lunch break Tuesday, he says the program is a “good incentive” to get employees moving. When it’s nice outside, he’s motivated to walk along the riverfront. When it’s not, he loops around the RenCen halos inside. “I probably average about 10,000 steps a day, but I also go out of my way to walk in the evenings,” he says.

But why are employers pushing steps when jobs are tied to desks?

“Employers are understanding that if an employee is healthier, they’re going to be more productive,” Bjorkquist says.

According to a 2015 Society for Human Resource Management survey of 400 employers, 70 percent said they offer wellness programs, and 8 percent plan to offer them in the next 12 months. What’s more, 40 percent offer rewards for completing health and wellness programs.

In the past five years, Susan Bailey, chair of the nonprofit Michigan Wellness Council, says “the momentum picked up” among employers launching workplace health perks nationwide.

Yet in Michigan, Bailey says she’s seen a spike in health incentives offered the past two years, and the state’s falling unemployment rate — currently at 4.8 percent — may be why.

“Unemployment has gone down, which means we’re back to a situation where talent and acquisition is more competitive,” she says. “Employers want to get people, keep people and have it be a fun place to work … so that people want to come back every day.”

Cue the afternoon dance jams and yoga classes.

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David Poppe, a engagement specialist at United Shore, leads a group of employees in a dance break. Employees take turns deejaying their playlists.

Enticingly innovative

Free $1,500 to spend

Employees of the mobile app developer Detroit Labs don’t have to shell out if they want to buy a kayak, elliptical or treadmill. The company offers a Coin + Craft program where employees receive $1,500 each year to spend on whatever they want. Co-founder Nathan Hughes says many use the budget to pay for weekly boot camp and yoga classes and massage therapy sessions held at the Detroit office. Others apply it toward marathon entry fees or medical expenses. “I’ve had someone use it for Lasik surgery to pay for the amount insurance doesn’t cover,” he says. “People get really creative.” The funds comes as a paycheck reimbursement and can be banked up to $3,000.

■Another healthy perk: This year’s holiday gift from the three company founders was a fleet of 10 yellow bicycles from Detroit Bikes. Any of the nearly 100 employees can check them out for a ride anytime. “(A colleague) and I actually used it to grab some lunch today,” Hughes says. “We rode out, got some take-out and precariously rode back with our lunch.”

Afternoon dance parties

Every day at 3 p.m., about 75 employees congregate on a dance floor at the United Shore mortgage lending company in Troy. If it’s nice out, they’ll take the dance party outside. “We saw a lot of teams say, ‘OK, it’s 3 o’clock. Get up and stretch and do fun things together,’ ” says Chief People Officer Laura Lawson. “We thought, ‘Why not create this as a designated break time?’” Employees take turns deejaying their playlists. On Halloween, “Thriller” is a favorite. When Prince passed, they blasted his greatest hits. “It’s one of those things where all of us can let loose for a moment and then re-energize and go back to our work,” Lawson says. “It’s a quick five to 10 minutes, and it adds so much more value than us not stopping.” Lang, the marketing coordinator, says the breaks bring everyone together. “It’s funny to see people you think are these quiet folks that never talk,” she says, “and then you see them on the dance floor, and it’s like, wow!”

Tracksuit Tuesdays

You can leave your suits and heels in the closet on Tuesdays if you work at Brogan & Partners in Birmingham. The ad agency used to offer exercise classes during lunch, but found most of the 23 employees had gym memberships and exercised on their own. So they started Tracksuit Tuesday, to encourage employees to workout during the day. “We thought everyone could wear their exercise clothes to work and do what they wanted,” says managing partner Ellyn Davidson. She hasn’t seen too many “throwback tracksuits,” but says Lululemon and Athleta gear is popular around the office.

Fitbit challenges

If you’re devoted to reaching the recommended 10,000 daily steps, Marsh & McLennan Agency in Troy is the place to lace up your sneakers. Last year, the employee benefits firm bought Fitbits for its 88 staff members and started 30-day fitness challenges to see who could get the most steps. “Employees are required to sync their device each Sunday night. Reports are run on Monday to give everyone a status of the current standings,” says human resources director Cathie Ruffner. “It’s fun — we’re a competitive group.” At the end, cash prizes are awarded to the top three step takers. But everyone who participates gets $25 in Wellness Bucks that can be redeemed for gift cards, gym membership subsidies or paid time off. Director of Marketing Ryan Bowers is wrapping up May with 294,465 steps, or an average of 9,741 daily steps, which puts her in the middle of the employee ranking. “I keep trying to get my steps higher, but someone keeps beating me out,” she says, laughing. At the end of the day, she won’t be upset if she doesn’t take first. “It’s a chance to engage on a different level with co-workers,” she says.

Oatmeal bar

Instead of a water cooler crew, you’ll find an oatmeal crew every day at 9 a.m. at HoMedics in Commerce Township. The 200 employees can help themselves to a free oatmeal bar with toppings such as granola, raisins, honey, cinnamon and fresh fruit. “It’s just a healthy start to the day,” says marketing and communications manager Karyn Bylinowski. “It’s one less thing you have to worry about every day when you’re getting ready for work or getting the kids to school. By the time you get out the door, you don’t have to worry about breakfast — you have have a healthy breakfast waiting for you.” The manufacturer of home massage products also provides complimentary fruit for an afternoon snack and subsidized healthy lunches, like salmon and chicken, in the cafeteria.

Cheap yoga

About 350 Quicken Loans employees get their downward dog on each month. Any employee of Quicken Loans and its family of companies can take advantage of unlimited $5 drop-in yoga classes at Citizen Yoga in Detroit. (Drop-ins are usually $20). All they have to do is show their badge, and they don’t have to be yoga pros, says owner Kacee Must. “We focus on all experience levels at the studio,” she says. Quicken also organizes yoga sessions at the office, as well as lunchtime walking groups and high-intensity interval training classes. “We understand that it’s important for our team members to get out from behind their desks and get active,” says Quicken Loans spokesman Greg Bartosch. “... Team members cannot flourish if they don’t take care of their health.”

Healthy cooking demos

No pun intended, but “food is a key ingredient to our overall approach to wellness,” says Holly Kinnear, chief human resources officer at the Taubman Company, which owns and leases U.S. shopping centers. Besides a Web portal where employees can swap healthy recipes, the company invites chefs from Lafayette Market in Pontiac to conduct on-site cooking demonstrations twice a year. “They help employees think more creatively about reducing carbs in their diet and the starch and the calories that come from pasta and things like that,” Kinnear says. A few suggestions from the chefs: Use a spiralizer to make zucchini noodles in lieu of pasta, and sub turkey for beef. Taubman also adds the chef’s recipes — like quinoa burgers and roasted spaghetti squash — to the cafeteria lunch menu. Sign-up for the demos goes fast among the 300 Bloomfield Hills headquarters staff. “It’s not just about paying benefits,” Kinnear says “… it’s about offering healthy diet options to help (employees) go out of work and actually lead a more healthy lifestyle.”

Free Weight Watchers trial

If you want to try Weight Watchers, but don’t want to pay the $70 monthly fee, consider becoming a City of Ferndale employee. In 2013, the city started offering a free 12-week trial for all employees, their spouses and even retirees. Within a year, employees lost over 1,000 pounds. “A lot of people have reached their lifetime weightloss goals,” says Ferndale human resources director Jenny Campos, adding that 50 of the 130 full-time employees have tried the diet. Research shows a healthy weight can reduce the risk of diabetes, heart disease and other chronic conditions. Of course, correlation doesn’t equal causation, but since launching the Weight Watchers program, the city has seen a $500,000 decrease in their midlevel health insurance claims.

Does your employer offer unique health incentives? Tell us about it in the comments.