Jennifer Swanberg works in an office so casual that two little dogs, Eleanor (named after first lady Eleanor Roosevelt) and Frida (after painter Frida Kahlo), roam the workplace.
Her job: to tell companies how to step it up, with better workplace practices to make them not only more profitable, but more enlightened places to work.
Its name: iwin.
Launched by the University of Kentucky in 2007, the center was the first in the nation to study work-life issues through a particular lens — that of Kentucky, rather than of the nation.
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Swanberg came to UK in 2000, after 15 years of experience at Columbia University and the Families and Work Institute in New York and McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass.
Early this month, iwin recognized the 3M Co. as the honoree for the first Dr. Lee T. Todd Jr. Bridging the Gap Between Workplace Research and Practice Award, named for the former UK president, who helped establish the organization.
3M received a one-year membership to iwin's Innovative Employer Roundtable, which enables the organization to participate in partner-exclusive events.
iwin also recently released a 2011-12 report on "Creating Healthy Organizations: Promising Practices in Kentucky."
Swanberg and assistant director Lee Ann Walton spoke with the Herald-Leader. This is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Question: How did your organization get its start?
Swanberg: When President Todd first started here at the university, he put together a series of commissions. One was a commission on women. One of the first things they did was to do a series of focus groups to understand the needs of working women on campus. What they found was that employees at UK were dealing with work and family issues, and at that point, the chair of the commission, she and I went to Dr. Todd and requested that he establish a high-level task force on work and life, and ... about a year and a half later, there was a series of recommendations that the committee put together on work-life issues at UK. ...
One of the bigger ones was to establish a work-life office at UK, which has since been done. And the other was to create an entity, a research entity, that would take promising practices and translate it into practices for businesses in the commonwealth of Kentucky — so essentially take what we're learning from the science and make it accessible to (employers). So Dr. Todd took the recommendation, and then I was asked to establish this institute.
I wanted to make it a broader issue, one that would educate businesses on how to create a work environment that promotes what we call the "triple bottom line": worker productivity, work-life fit and health. ... What we did was to help educate businesses on what it means to be an innovative workplace.
Q: Who finances this? The university itself, or do you have grant money?
Swanberg: We got seed money from the university to establish the institute, and part of the business model ... is to establish a roundtable of employers that we would engage in learning about quality workplace practices. ... We established the innovative employer roundtable, and they pay an annual fee of $5,000, ... for which they get different services. ... We had 40 partners this year, and it will grow to about 50, and then that will be it. We don't accept any more partners. We want to keep it as a premier peer-to-peer learning environment.
We have two meetings a year. ... We want it to be intimate. We don't want it to be this large conference. We want it to be an environment where people can really learn from one another. ...
I came from New York, where I worked on a national study of an aging work force, and I had a general sense of what the quality of life was like for aging individuals at a national level.
But I didn't know at the state level. So one of the first things we did was do a series of interviews with businesses that had a variety of different promising practices. It was a way for us to begin to understand all the different initiatives that businesses in Kentucky are involved in.
We created this roundtable of 40 partners and we have a whole series of ... partner-model practices, and again, it's all about taking the practices that companies are engaged in and using them to improve the quality of workers' lives both on and off the job as a way to improve job performance and other outcomes.
Q: What is the future for health programs at employers? Will they be incentivized in the short term, and when the economic climate shifts, will businesses in the end make the state of employee health an issue that affects the employee economically?
Walton: Essentially what we're hearing from our employers is that they're struggling around the issues of well-being with ... employees, and we wanted to figure out a way to approach the issue and offer a tool and resource to utilize, which is what we do here. The issue of health and wellness was one we just didn't know how to grasp. As Jennifer said, we had a lack of data as to what was happening here in Kentucky.
So we just started on a search and put a call out to employers across Kentucky if they had an innovative practice they wanted to share, then they could respond. We conducted personal interviews with them and captured these case studies of them reviewing what they were proud of.
In tandem with that, we were trying to create a model that employers could look to. You could say "culture of health," but that could also be a "culture of flexibility." ... So we wanted to create a really approachable, accessible model that employers felt they could look at programs that they already had in place and rate those programs into things that could improve the health of employees. ... What we found is that health and wellness programs were sort of looked at as a checkbox in terms of employers saying, "Oh, we have a health and wellness program in place." It was operating as a silo often, in the wings of organizations. We wanted to emphasize that that is not what changes behaviors at an individual level in terms of reducing costs and improving employee well-being.
Q: The idea being that some of the examples in the report, for example R.J. Corman, really model the healthy behaviors for their employees. Or John Schnatter, who models these practices on the Papa John's campus.
Swanberg: That was what was fascinating about hearing these case studies, was hearing what it took to make these programs work. ... It took a lot of different individuals, a lot of different programs, coming together under shared vision and sharing a business strategy to make these things work. It's not just about the business strategy for a lot of these organizations; it's about improving the employee health and well-being.
Q: One thing that didn't figure into it as much as I thought was employee retention. It seemed to be more about ensuring the health of employees for as long as you have them.
Walton: We found that was one of the shortcomings in the organizations across Kentucky, is that they weren't thinking in terms of retention and talent development.
But Central Baptist (Hospital), for example, went the way of figuring out what was stressing their employees, what the stressors were, ... to better train and relieve some of the stressors on employees. They offer things like financial management, elder care. ... They found to link these things into their wellness initiatives and looked at it through a retention perspective.
Q: I find it interesting that you mention Central Baptist, because they really walk their talk.
Swanberg: It's really important for the company to assess their own practices to see how they may be contributing to ill health or stress. For example — I always call it "the pink elephant" in the room — is workload. Great walking trails, healthy choices in the cafeteria, smoking cessation programs, yet the normal culture might be working 60 and 70 hours a week. What is that doing to negatively influence worker health? That's the other thing that we try to use this model to demonstrate, that we have to look internally at their practices — so flexible work arrangements help people balance work and family, and there's other kinds of initiatives and strategies that businesses use. ...
I think it's important that businesses look at their own day-to-day practices as well. A supportive work environment, one that the supervisor has with his direct report, is overlooked. The supervisor's supervisor, if you will — those relationships are really important in engaging an employee in their work, in doing the job well and doing it without stress. I think we all have days when all we want to do is go eat M&Ms.
Q: What do you see as the biggest issues facing Kentucky in the next few years? We're coming out of the recession, and it's a greatly changed workplace.
Swanberg: I think some of the issues surrounding the workplace over the next few years are going to be over the aging population. ... It's been clearly documented that the Boomers have a very different perspective on work than Generation X and the Millennials. They're not any less committed; they just approach work in a different way.
In Kentucky, workers have some of the poorest health in the country. It affects organizations both in productivity and other related costs. So how do we track that in a way that's comprehensive and results-driven?
Other issues facing them, assuming the economy continues to grow again: how do you hire new people in a way that fits your objectives? A lot of businesses downsized, and they're smaller, leaner teams, but they're also recognizing that more workers are complaining about stress because of the heavy workloads because people are doing more with less, and losing that downtime that workers used to have to have — say, a half-hour lunch. They need to hold their organizations so that workers can continue to be productive without burning them out.
Q: You touch base with them?
Walton: Well, not all 40 every day. But in some way consistently. We have a way for them to communicate, electronically, through a listserv. They can toss it to me. I'll toss it to all 40 organizations and receive responses and create a conversation around these issues that they're facing. It ranges from something as simple as, "What's your social media policy?" to something as complex as "How have you navigated the change process?" We also have Webinars for our partners around issues they tell us are important to them.