Health | December 2012 | By Sam Oches

Counter Culture

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Pierre Panos encourages Fresh to Order employees to be healthy.
Fresh to Order CEO Pierre Panos says employees are a critical component in the brand’s health mission. Caroline Petters photography
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The program (or something similar) might extend to franchisees, Farid says, giving the company the opportunity to put a healthful message in front of five or six employees at each of more than 1,000 locations. “Even if we just made a difference with those five or six, that’s five or six thousand people you help,” he says. “And how many people do they touch? We need to get the message across, we need to turn around and do a better job of focusing on something that is very, very important to the consumer.”

Diane Hart, president of the National Association for Health and Fitness, says quick-service companies have several tools at their disposal to create positive change within their employee base. She says operators should consider starting with a company-wide “wellness committee” to develop programs and resources for the organization, and then get their employees on board with simple activities at first, like taking small walks around the building during the day.

Companies might also consider setting up peer groups within the organization to foster health mentorship or installing posters in the back office that remind employees of healthy activities, Hart says.

“Above all, it needs senior-level support. It’s got to be top down,” she says. “They’ve got to see that your CEO is buying into this. And I am seeing more and more smaller companies have in their mission statement to create a culture of wellness in the workplace.”

Education is another great tool to help employees get on track with their health, Hart says. She says brands can take advantage of (often free) speakers and consultants from health organizations that can come in to a company and clear up any mixed messages people have heard about health and wellbeing.

These educational components are especially important in the quick-service industry, she says.

“When you’re dealing with a transient workforce, or even a younger workforce, the educational component … is critical,” Hart says. “They can carry that education forward with them.”

Operators might also consider offering their employees incentives to lose weight and focus on health, Hart says. For example, premium parking spots or gift cards could be offered to the employee who loses the most weight within a certain month, she says.

While Baun says incentives can indeed get a company pointed in the right direction when it comes to health—even going so far as saying that brands might consider structuring health benefits around certain health goals—he cautions that incentives can’t be the only way brands inspire employees to care more about their health.

“Incentives might help a person step up to learn how to change their behavior; they might even help a person step up to lose the first 25 pounds,” he says. “But what we’re talking about is sustained change, and you can’t pay a person enough to sustain change.”

Of course, companies like Fresh To Order, Freshëns, and Edible Arrangements are founded on principles that include health and wellbeing at their core. But the experts say national quick-serve brands can also develop a company culture that encourages a healthy lifestyle.

Hart says these national companies could work with franchisees and store managers to establish programs at the community level, like participating in awareness walks, 5ks, or even gardening activities.

“To me, it’s just easier when you break it down … with a representative from each state,” she says. “So the smaller, the better. You just take little bites of the big culture that you’re trying to achieve.”

As someone who oversees an international system, Farid says he thinks major quick-service brands can make permanent change—so long as they get the ball rolling. “Once the shift starts, it will catch on and just keep getting better and better, as long as the people are genuine,” he says. “Don’t do it for the sake of doing it, be genuine. Truly believe in it, then stick to it. And don’t give up on it because it’s just a marketing thing.”

The results of such a strategy don’t just include healthier employees. The CDC’s Lang writes in his e-mail that a healthy culture leads to more engaged employees, lower health-care costs, and improved productivity.

Hart says healthy workplace programs make for healthier and happier employees, which helps customers make healthier menu decisions. But she also says these steps can create a competitive position for any quick serve that is serious about change.

“You’re uplifting your organization, showing it’s a conscious organization, that you’re set apart from other organizations because you really do care for your employees,” she says. “They’re the front line. They’re the boots on the ground. … You’re never going to convince everyone. But if you start this wave of health promotion, you’ll be surprised at the great results you’ll see.”

Baun reminds that change isn’t going to happen unless leaders in the industry commit to embedding health and wellbeing at every level of the organization.

“I think the fast-food industry has to step it up and make it a value system within their own company,” Baun says. “I think when they do that, the changes they make won’t just be kind of peripheral changes, or cosmetic changes, but I think they’ll be real changes. They’ll be changes that will sustain the idea to make healthier choices easy. That will have a huge impact on everyone that has to buy food.”