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A factory in Illinois has an innovative approach to employee wellness

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

As the great resignation gives way to the great reshuffle in the job market, many companies are embracing workplace wellness initiatives aimed at attracting and retaining good employees. The trouble is, conventional approaches, like offering free gym memberships, aren't very effective. So what can motivate workers to be healthy and productive? A manufacturing company based in Illinois is getting a lot of attention for its innovative approach. NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us now to talk about this. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So Allison, you've been talking to workers at a factory in the Midwest. What's so special about what's happening there?

AUBREY: Well, the company is called CHI. They manufacture overhead garage doors at a factory in Arthur, Ill. There are about 800 employees there. And what makes the company unique is that every employee has equity, a small ownership stake. Now, one morning early this month, managers called a meeting and word spread they were all getting a big payday. Jay Scamihorn is one of the factory managers I spoke to.

JAY SCAMIHORN: They were thinking anywhere from 15 to $30,000, realistically. That's what they thought they were going to the meeting to hear. And when they found out it was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, I mean, the room just kept getting more excited, more excited, more excited. It was just grown men crying, people in shock. Every single CHI employee got that money. It's beyond amazing. It's unbelievable.

FADEL: Wow.

AUBREY: I spoke to one of the company's longtime truck drivers who's receiving nearly a half-million dollar check pre-tax. Payouts were based on seniority and salary. And the average payout for hourly workers was between $175,000 and $200,000, so life-changing amounts of money for some. They can pay off mortgages, kids' college. It's a big deal for them.

FADEL: Yeah. So they have actual buy-in in how well the company's doing. What does this have to do with wellness?

AUBREY: Well, to explain that, let me go back about seven years. When the company was bought by investors, as I said, every employee got a small ownership stake. And every employee was given a say in how the workplace should change. The investors wanted to see productivity go up, so they asked workers to fix things that weren't working. Each year, workers voted on a big improvement project that the company spent $1 million on. So for example, Butch Burwell (ph), who has worked at the factory more than 20 years, told me one problem was a lack of healthy food options. There were no good options nearby or in the plant.

BUTCH BURWELL: We had no cafeteria here whatsoever. We had a few snack machines and a few pop machines around. And the guys would, you know, of course, eat unhealthy because of that.

AUBREY: Some would drive to a nearby gas station to get fried chicken. But there was a lot of complaining.

FADEL: So what did the workers do to change that?

AUBREY: Well, they voted to build an on-site canteen, which now sells sandwiches, salads made fresh every day. They're three or four bucks, so every factory worker can afford to eat there. And Butch Burwell said, it's made a big improvement. People overall are eating healthier. But it goes well beyond this.

BURWELL: When you empower people to be able to be heard and be part of the decision process, it really means a lot to guys that work in a factory.

AUBREY: Another big project workers voted in was an on-site health clinic. So instead of needing to take time off or go to urgent care, the idea is there's health care right there. Next, workers told me they're considering an on-site gym.

FADEL: So it sounds like they've made this a better place to work. Has that helped to make the company more profitable?

AUBREY: Well, that's the idea. I mean, until last week, none of the workers knew they were getting a big payday. This only happened, the CFO told me, because over the last seven years, they've become much more productive and profitable. The home improvement boom has helped. But the CFO told me the workers' productivity went up a lot. They've become now an industry leader in how quickly they deliver their products. So CHI is now being bought by a bigger company, but they all keep their jobs. And Jay Scamihorn told me the goal is to keep up the structure.

SCAMIHORN: I do think we get more out of these employees because they are making their decisions. They're solving their own problems. They have somebody to support them when they bring an idea forward. The idea that we didn't have a place to eat for lunch and we built a cafeteria, I think that empowers people. I think they feel like, hey, they're listening to me. And they're going to be more productive because of that.

AUBREY: To me, what's really striking, Leila, is that these decisions employees have made have been all about creating a healthier workplace, from eating well to preventive care on-site.

FADEL: So as we noted, a lot of companies have wellness initiatives, right? Do we know why this one in particular was so successful?

AUBREY: You know, companies spend about $50 billion a year on wellness initiatives. Yet, economists who study them say many fail to lead to any meaningful change at all, things like free gym memberships or giving free sweatshirts for getting a biometric screening or cholesterol check. The problem is, when initiatives are top down, when it's someone in the C-suite telling workers what to do, it's not typically effective in changing people's behaviors. So the chief financial officer at CHI, Tisha Pfeiffer, said their approach was just to ask workers what they wanted.

TISHA PFEIFFER: The simple question that we asked is, what would make your day happier and healthier when you came to work every day? And that, in effect, changed it from the bottom up instead of the top down.

AUBREY: And she thinks this has been very effective.

FADEL: Now, we began by talking about the payday all employees are getting. Could that have health benefits also?

AUBREY: You know, possibly, yes. I mean, for many of these folks, it's the shared decision-making that has improved their day-to-day lives. And in terms of their big payday, Jay Scamihorn says, you know, the way he sees it, sharing the wealth among all employees is setting many people up for financial security, which can help relieve stress.

SCAMIHORN: I can see long term that you take the stress away from people's lives and, I think, yes, they'll be healthier and happier people.

AUBREY: CHI is one of several companies that investors and researchers are watching and studying to see if ownership stake and share decision-making pays off, not just in terms of profitability, but also in terms of health and happiness.

FADEL: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thank you so much.

AUBREY: Thank you, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.