Podcast: Wellness More Than an HR Activity with Nikki McGrath


In this episode of the Well-Being Experts podcast, we’re discussing how wellness is much more than just an HR activity. We sat down with Nikki McGrath, Director of Member Experience at Onlife Health, to talk about how gaining buy-in from the C-suite is vital to modeling behaviors and engaging the workforce in the benefits of wellness.

“Our most successful programs are the ones where leadership is engaged. And it’s more than just being supportive. It’s easy for a CEO to write a letter saying, ‘We support this wellness program.’ But it’s about being engaged on a regular basis.”




Want to dive deeper into this Well-Being Experts podcast? Here's the full transcript from our discussion with Nikki McGrath, Director of Member Experience for Onlife Health.


Nikki: Our most successful programs are the ones where leadership is engaged. And it’s more than just being supportive. It’s easy for a CEO to write a letter saying, “We support this wellness program.” But it’s about being engaged on a regular basis.

Host: This is the Well-Being Experts podcast and you just heard from Nikki McGrath, Director of Member Experience at Onlife Health. We had the chance to sit down to discuss how wellness is much more than just an HR activity. Included in the conversation is how gaining buy-in from C-suite is vital to modeling behaviors and engaging the workforce in the benefits of wellness. Enjoy the conversation!

Host: To get started, how about we take a look at how you describe the differences between wellness and HR. How do you make wellness more than just an HR activity?

Nikki: I love that you ask this question because I think it’s so important that we are trying to find ways that wellness activities are becoming more than just an HR activity. I think that really speaks to the importance of a strong culture of health that is the foundation for all of this. Not just offering those stand-alone activities here and there, but it’s about communication and helping employees understand the value and the importance of offering these sorts of activities.

It’s about engaging leadership so that employees understand that this is something that’s important from the top down, that our leaders value them as employees. They want them to be happy, they want them to be productive, they want them to enjoy what they’re doing. So seeing your leadership, seeing your CEO engage in those activities is an important part of that.

It’s about meeting employees where they are, offering them options, giving them different choices. Not just limiting them to exercise classes, or cooking demos and that sort of thing. It’s about thinking more holistically about what well-being, about what wellness is.

And then it’s also about giving them resources and tools that are going to help them even outside the workplace. And I think this is really critical; this is what – when we say making it more than just an HR activity – this means extending outside of their workday. So that means they are learning things, they are engaging in things that are going to help them when they go home.

By extension, it’s going to also be helping their families. We know that such an important part of behavior change, or engaging in positive and healthy behaviors, is having support. And the people that we interact with the most, for most of us, it’s our families. We go home and we eat with them, we play, we engage with them. And so we need them to be on board as well. Parents, we want them to be role models to their children, so that they’re learning, and they’re establishing healthy habits. So that’s a really critical piece of this here, is helping employees learn, engage, and sustain healthy behaviors that are going to continue outside the workplace.

Host: So you just referenced a culture of health. When clients refer to their culture of health, how does wellness fit into that vision?

Nikki: So wellness is certainly a big piece of that, probably the biggest piece, at least for an outsider when you think of culture of health, and having activities that support a member’s well-being is a big piece of that. But, in order for wellness programs to be effective, and to truly say that you have a culture of health, it’s about making sure that you have other resources in place, making sure that you have buy-in from leadership. 

So it really is top-down; it’s about the leadership, about the C-suite saying that we support this and we value you as employees. And it’s not just about us wanting you to be healthier. It’s about us wanting you to enjoy coming to work everyday. And we want to give you the tools and the resources to make that happen.

Host: So how important is it to position well-being as much more than just the program of the month? Do you see that happen frequently?

Nikki: Yeah, we see that a lot, where companies will get really excited about a wellness initiative, and they’ll kick off a campaign, and they’ll have this great theme around it, and some great activities. And the tricky part about wellness is that it has to be sustainable. So you have to have people in place that can support that and that can keep it fresh, and can offer new activities.

When we think about wellness, it’s easy to put in a walking challenge at work, or start doing some yoga classes at work, or to offer those sort of things, which are great. I hope that those are always a part of a wellness program. But it’s more than that when you think about well-being. That means different things to different people, including things around physical activity and nutrition, stress management. Even financial well-being is a part of that.

So all of those components need to be considered when you’re putting a wellness or a well-being program into place. And there needs to be some connectivity with all of those activities, and employees need to understand the value of that, and not just see it as, “Okay, this month we’re doing this, and this month we’re doing this.” They’re all important, and we should be doing all those activities throughout the entire year and on a regular basis. So I think that’s one of the important things to consider so as not to fall into the trap of, this is the program of the month.

Host: If a client is adamant about realizing ROI, how does that shape the conversation about the wellness agenda? How do you manage expectations around achieving short-term ROI and some of the pressures with things in more VOI now?

Nikki: There’s definitely been a shift towards Value on Investment when it comes to wellness. Historically we were looking at claims-based data and, “Are we saving our clients money by improving employees’ health?” And that’s great, that’s certainly a goal, but we want our clients to recognize other benefits of a wellness program.

So that’s things like productivity; when an employee is at work, are they engaged? Are they productive? It’s absenteeism; how many people go to work when they have a headache and they’re really not being productive? Employee retention. Even just employee satisfaction and morale. Do they like what they do? Do they like coming to work?

A wellness program lends itself to that. If my employer offers me a wellness program, and all these great activities that come with it, and there’s this culture at the workplace, I see that my employer values me. It’s not just about, “Am I coming to work? Am I doing the work? They want me to enjoy it, and they want to keep me.” And I think that’s a really important part of a wellness program, and so ROI is great, but even if we don’t achieve that return on investment, we want our clients to be able to understand the value of that program.

Host: When you’re talking to the C-suite about what you just said, how do you not only activate the C-suite, but how do they differ in their approach? Maybe a CFO might have different thoughts than a chief medical officer, or the CEO.

Nikki: Certainly, when you are engaging a C-suite, they each have a different focus. And so it’s helping each one of them understand how this wellness program can help them in their goals that they have in their role. So, if we’re talking to the CFO, how can we help them save hard dollars, how can we positively impact the budget with a return on investment?

If it’s the chief medical officer, clearly that person is going to be interested in the health outcomes of that population. And so, obviously; we can impact that. And then from the CEO’s perspective, and just having that overall – looking at the big picture of the workforce. That’s when it’s talking more about the value of this to employee retention, employee satisfaction, and a CEO is going to be interested in that.

So it’s just about providing that information, and using our experience, and using the success stories we’ve had with so many of our clients to be able to say, “This is how this is going to help you,” to the CFO. “And this is going to help the health outcomes; this is how it’s going to help the employee satisfaction.”

Host: When you think about some of those success stories, are there any thoughts or stories you want to share about a C-suite that really got it, and what that looked like, and how it made an impact?

Nikki: Yeah. Certainly, our most successful programs are the ones where leadership is engaged. And it’s more than just being supportive. It’s easy for a CEO to write a letter saying, “We support this wellness program,” or, “Great news in your benefits package this year. We’re offering a new wellness program, or new wellness activities.” That’s one thing, and that’s great, but it’s about being engaged on a regular basis.

The programs that are most successful are the ones where you can go to the fitness center, or you can go to the company wellness events, and you see the CEO there actually engaged in it. They’re outside, involved in the walking meetings. They’re walking the walk, and they’re actually living it, and doing the things that they’re recommending.

That’s tricky to do for a leader, because we all know how busy they are. It’s really easy to push those activities aside, but they’re so important. And when you see your CEO out there, when we see our CEO engaged in our activities, that speaks volumes. And that shows the level of support that he has in the wellness program, and how important it is.

Host: Do you think there’s any added pressure when the CEO’s doing reps right beside you?

Nikki: Absolutely, and in a good way.

Host: In a good way.

Nikki: In a good way. That’s great when you see that.


Well-Being Experts is supported by Onlife Health. Onlife Health is a comprehensive wellness provider serving health plans and large employers nationwide. With over 10 million members and 20 years of industry experience, Onlife takes a high-touch, high-tech approach to wellness that creates real results for your population. Find out more at onlifehealth.com/resources.


Host: As we’re thinking about remote employees – with them being dispersed everywhere, certainly not all in the same time zone – what are some of the ways that they can still engage and participate in the wellness program?

Nikki: So what’s great about our program is that we do offer so many options on our wellness portal. For example, a member can choose to interact with their health coach in a number of different ways. They may do it through secure messaging, through email, or they can pick up a phone and they can call their coach. They can do it through our mobile app, and they can connect with their coach. They can also complete some of our self-directed or digital coaching programs.

So when it comes to health coaching they have an option in terms of how they want to engage, but we have a whole number of other resources that are available to them. And we always say it’s about meeting the member where they are, and so that means no cookie-cutter approach, but giving the member options in how they want to engage.

With our device integration feature, for example, I wear a Fitbit, and that seems to be a pretty popular device. But everybody seems to have their favorite. There are so many that are out there, and people have their favorite app that they choose to track their physical activity on. And so we give them options, and that’s a great thing for remote employees, as well as for anyone, to be able to monitor their progress, to be able to track their physical activity and to sync that through our portal, be able to get points and earn incentives from their device. So there’s just really an offering for those employees and all of our member options and how they want to engage.

We’re also not limiting members in terms of the programs or the topics that they want to talk about. So, when it comes to wellness, the big topics, physical activity, nutrition, tobacco cessation, stress management, we offer a number of those topics. But even outside of that our coaches and our platforms support other wellness topics. So, as a health professional, I may say to you, “This is what I think that you need to work on,” and you might not be quite ready to do that yet. I’m going to encourage you, and I want to move you in terms of your readiness to change in that area, but giving you the option to start where you want to start so that you can increase your confidence there and be ready to make additional changes in the future.

Host: And there might even be fun activities even, like I’ve heard of things like wine tastings. That sounds like a pretty easy thing to participate in.

Nikki: You’re absolutely right, and I’m glad that you brought that up. We are a wellness company, but we also want to provide that. We feel like we have a great responsibility and we certainly value our employees. And so all of these things that we talk about, all of these things that we recommend, we live that, and we do that for our employees as well. And so for us here on monthly basis we kick off a new campaign or a new focus, just trying to keep things fresh to keep our employees engaged, and that means assessing what our employees’ interests are.

And so, of course, you always have the physical activity, the walking challenges, or the walking clubs, and the yoga classes, and those are great, but like you mentioned, the wine tasting too. We’ve done wine tasting, we’ve done chocolate tastings, different cooking demonstrations, adult coloring classes, learn a different language, sewing for stress management. It’s a long list of activities, and so I think that really speaks to the holistic approach, the holistic view of what well-being, of what wellness really is.

Host: Let’s talk a little about preferred ways to appropriately staff a comprehensive wellness plan. How do things like the reporting structure need to look like? What are your thoughts on that?

Nikki: I like that you ask this question because it’s emphasizing the fact that a wellness program needs to be staffed. It takes a lot of time. It takes effort to run a wellness program and, certainly, Onlife administers that program. But  it really helps to have soldiers on the ground who are managing that at the client level. And so that means having, likely, a wellness program administrator, or someone who is dedicated to managing that within the workplace.

So having a dedicated resource, that’s important for a number of reasons: first, because it does take time to do that. Secondly, it’s important enough that, depending on the size of the organization, you need to have a budget associated with that, supporting those wellness resources financially. And so having a dedicated resource in place helps to support that, and a reporting structure in place where that person actually can communicate with that C-suite, and be able to talk about some of the important initiatives that are underway, and some of the support that they need from the C-suite. So having someone in place is important.

Another piece of that organizational structure is also having, in some cases, a wellness champion network in place. Often we work with companies that are very geographically dispersed, and so that means having people at each of those locations that are going to work together to help support the wellness initiatives.

Host: That makes sense. So with wellness champions, before we move on, are there any either stories or examples of instances where you’ve seen wellness champions really help take a culture of health to the next level, or seen them really help the rollout of a wellness program?

Nikki: Yeah. I think wellness champions, depending on the organization, are so important, and can really help a wellness program thrive, and we have certainly seen that in a number of our clients today. One of which is a company – nationwide, one headquarters and approximately 60 locations throughout the company. And so we have effectively trained over 50 wellness champions for this particular client to be able to come together on a regular basis, share best practices, talk about some of the challenges that they have in implementing their wellness program at their particular site, or maybe not implementing it, but to keep it going, to keep the ball rolling, to keep it fresh. That’s a challenge when it comes to some of these programs.

And so I would say when it comes to the wellness champions, when we’ve seen it work really successfully is when we have the buy-in from the top, when leadership supports that and gives these individuals time to meet.

And by the way, I’ve been talking how we have this particular client, 60 locations across the country. When I say meet to get together, we’re not flying them into anywhere. We’re doing WebEx’s, and we’re doing telephone calls, and so it’s really very easy to get that – well, not easy when you’re talking about 50 people, but it’s –

Host: It’s a lot easier than flying everybody into one place.

Nikki: Exactly. It’s not a huge expense that we’re talking about here. It’s just a matter of connecting them and giving them an opportunity to talk to each other, to encourage each other, and to talk about any new happenings that are going on.

Host: Well, it makes sense that wellness champions have a really close relationship with remote employees. Are there any other stories or examples you can think of of how having a remote team, how you can still get everyone engaged?

Nikki: So, typically, when we talk about these wellness programs – and a lot of these examples that I’ve been offering have been things that are happening at the workplace – so the workplace challenges, the onsite fitness centers; all great things. But as organizations are increasing their remote workforce, it’s important that we’re reaching out to them as well. I’ve been a telecommuter in the past, so I first-hand can appreciate some of the challenges that there are with being a remote employee. And so one of the things we do really well, that we want to make sure that we’re giving our clients, is resources that can engage this population as well.

Communication is so important, and there are number of ways that you can do that. But communicating additional resources that are available for remote employees. Doing challenges that don’t require you to be on-site is a really pretty easy step that someone can take. So I would do this myself, again, when I was a remote employee. We would – here at Onlife – we would have challenges and I would be able to participate with my Fitbit and my device, and be able to track my activity, and be able to report that in and sync up with the team and be able to talk to them on a regular basis. So even hundreds of miles away, I was on a team, and I was able to engage in these wellness activities. But it’s also, these wellness champions, as you said, that can be really great for that remote workforce because they can help connect you to more of the community resources that are available. What’s available in my place might be different from where you are.

Host: Are there any examples you’d like to share when a client, they were super ecstatic about implementing wellness? And maybe this could also include feedback that you received. I just would love to hear about what it’s like from the other side when they’re really excited about this.

Nikki: Fortunately, we get lots of great feedback from our clients after implementing a new wellness program or even starting a new program cycle. Because we always want to keep things fresh, we always want to be offering new things, new tools, and new resources. Our clients are ecstatic when their employees are ecstatic and when they have a really great experience.

So, that means offering different types of activities, it means thinking outside of the typical physical activity and cooking demonstration and that sort of thing. One fun example I’m thinking of is offering coloring classes, adult coloring classes. And so just something kind of unique, but just really trying to, first of all, identifying the population, what are the population’s needs; and then thinking outside of the box to get to different sorts of activities to offer to those individuals.

And again, as I said before, it’s about sustaining that. It’s not just about, “Let’s kick this program off.” That’s great. You really have to keep it going, so communication, again, being a big part of that, offering new activities, making it sustainable, so that employees are confident that this is going to be around. It’s not just a fad, as it has been in the past. 

Been around for about 20 years now, Onlife has. When we first started, wellness was more of a nice-to-have thing. If employers were offering it, that was great. You didn’t really hear about it very often. And now we’re to the point where we know about 80% of employers are offering a wellness program. So there really is value in that, but employees need to know that that’s going to be sustainable. It’s going to be around. My employer values me, and this is one of the things that they’re doing to support that.

Host: That’s great and I love how we wrapped up with – it comes back to that relationship and it comes back to that feeling of having the support from your employer. It’s been a really cool conversation. I really appreciate you taking the time and I look forward to talking with you again soon.

Nikki: Thanks for the opportunity.

Host: Thank you to today’s guest, and a big thank-you to you for listening along with us. Well-Being Experts is brought to you by Onlife Health, a comprehensive wellness solutions company that has spent years working with health plans and large employers nationwide.


Today’s podcast and additional perspectives from the Well-Being Experts can be found at onlifehealth.com/resources. We welcome your comments, questions, feedback, all of the above at engage@onlifehealth.com.