clif bar takes on wellness, naturally: free-ranging conversation with jennifer freitas, HR manager

February 21, 2011

in free-ranging conversations (interviews with wellness innovators)

it should come as no surprise that wellness permeates clif bar. after all, clif bar is all about wellness, whether that’s wellness for the individual, the business, the community or the earth. they offer the expected employee wellness services: nutritional and life counseling, employee assistance services, an onsite gym, financial lunch and learns, concierge services. then they veer way off. free personal training and discounted masseuse. sustainability benefits that subsidize bike purchases and eco-home improvements. and there are additional rewards for employees who commute via foot, train or any non-car form of transit.

jen freitas, clif bar’s HR manager, spoke with me about how they think about wellness and what it has to do with their five aspirations—their five bottom lines. of course, i had to ask the first question on anyone’s mind…

fm: do you have any employees who aren’t healthy?

jf: well, we do have over 250 employees, and not every employee takes advantage of what we offer. we’re committed to making it as easy as possible for our people to improve their health and maintain a healthy lifestyle. nevertheless, sometimes employees have medical conditions that remind us why good health insurance is so important.

fm: i was surprised that the average age of your employees is 39. i would’ve pegged the average much lower.

jf: we have very low turnover.

we have no real problems with chronic conditions right now. as we get older, this will be more of a focus.

fm: clif bar has five aspirations, and they all relate to sustainability, from sustainability of the planet to sustainability of your brands, with your community, people and business in between. tell me how wellness fits in.

jf: other companies offer great benefits to attract talent. for us, there’d be something missing if we didn’t do this. it’s one of our bottom lines. and it’s great that one of our aspirations is sustaining our people. but the fact that we want to give back to our community and sustain our planet? this, too, contributes to our employees’ well-being.

fm: so, is health data a driver at all?

jf: not really. we’re not big enough for it to be useful. and at our size, one sick person can dramatically affect our costs. plus, it won’t tell me about our employees’ psychological well-being, either.

there are different ways to approach our benefits plan, and we’re looking at those as a way to offer our people flexible coverage. instead of focusing on how we can reduce insurance costs, we focus on helping all our people stay healthier.

fm: if health care cost containment isn’t driving design, what is?

jf: different things at different times. gary and kit, clif bar’s co-owners and co-CEOs, are athletes. they care deeply about health, so that makes having a gym a no-brainer. many other things we offer—like bringing your dog to work or our sabbatical program—are based on what our people value.

there’s an appreciation for soaking up everything life has to offer. we ask ourselves, “how do we create that?”

fm: how do you create that?

jf: i think everything that happens is wellness. projects employees get to work on. relationships with the boss. are employees laughing at work?

now the things i have purview over are more traditional: a gym, nutritional counseling, our sustainability benefits program. when i’ve sat down with our wellness team, we’ve tried to create space to get out of the old paradigm. it’s so easy to create goals around BMI and not around social connections—what we know works but we don’t really know how to leverage. i have people here who if they know they have to make goals around health, it kills the fun for them. it strips all the joy out of it.

fm: you offer incentives, too. in fact, your incentives are a lot more than the current average of $460. an employee can get $500 to help cover the cost of a bike. they can get up to $960 a year in rewards for commuting by anything but car. you offer free onsite workouts with a personal trainer. a top-notch kitchen with subsidized meals.

jf: the easier, the more accessible, the more employees will take it up.

fm: how do you approach communications with employees?

jf: we’re still small enough that communicating isn’t a challenge. there are 190 of our employees in our headquarters, and we have an all-company meeting every thursday. we use online and email for everyone—and for our remote employees, in particular. our remote workers can also take advantage of many of our wellness offerings, such as life coaching and nutritional counseling, via phone and email. we also try to pull in family members whenever we can for events and to encourage employees to use wellness offerings to benefit their entire family.

fm: i’m sure you get asked this all the time: how can a company that doesn’t share your mission emulate what you’re doing here?

jf: what we’re doing here is very unique to clif bar and our mission. it could fail miserably elsewhere. we didn’t start with all of this, either.

i tell people to be an observer of your culture. what would help your employees most? think globally, not just the traditional things. what can you change about your culture that’d have a huge impact on employees’ health?


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