How Portland General Electric empowers employees to be healthy

The utility’s Energy for Life program, which includes monthly events, weekly farmer’s markets in the summer, employee team exercise and health screenings, has changed its culture.

Portland General Electric provides power to nearly 825,000 customers, but electrical energy is not the only kind the company aims to create. For nearly a decade, PGE has also made big efforts to make its 2,750 employees more energetic and healthy with its Energy for Life program.

“Any company that has employees working for them is a health company,” says Sandi Graf, occupational health specialist with Portland General Electric. “By keeping our employees healthy, we keep them productive, and we keep our health care costs down. Wellness definitely pays.”

Since its inception, the program has had a huge impact on PGE’s corporate culture—from what’s in its snack machines to how employees interact with one another.

Starting with screenings

Though the utility has “always dabbled” in helping employees lead healthier lives, it really picked up in 2003, when Graf and others began noticing more and more articles about people becoming less healthy. In one, she says, was a projection that one in three people would have type 2 diabetes by 2050.

To head that off at PGE, the company started offering free health screenings to all its employees to examine them for risk factors for metabolic syndrome, a group of conditions that lead to cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

The utility also started a health-education newsletter, “Stall Talk,” written by Graf and another nurse. It’s posted on bathroom stall doors so its readers are a “captive audience,” Graf says.

The company’s “Get Healthy, Get Moving” program provides reimbursement for total health assessment, weight-loss programs, tobacco sensation programs, and assistance for mental health. The program has grown to include nurses, safety experts, therapists, employee assistance, and tons of activities.

Expanding program

One of those activities is Lighten Up for Good, the company’s annual 10-week exercise program. Employees team up in groups of four to eight people and work to reduce their weight through 150 minutes of exercise per person, every week. Their reward? Doing something good for their community.

“If they meet their goals, we make a donation to the Oregon Food Bank,” says Cindi Devich, safety and health resources manager for PGE. This year, $9,250 went to the food bank.

Employees track their progress through an internal SharePoint site, Devich says. Graf adds that they use social media to communicate with each other and come up with funny nicknames for their teams, such as “No Beer No More.” The corporate communications team puts articles about Lighten Up for Good online and in the community newsletter, as well.

Every month, one of the company’s executives leads a “power break,” in which he or she leads a group of employees in an activity such as tennis, walking along the waterfront, bicycling, or yoga. For example, in October, the utility’s CFO led employees up the steps at the 17-floor World Trade Center in Portland in Halloween costumes for the yearly “scare climb.”

“Health care starts at the top of the company,” says Elaina Medina, public information specialist at PGE.

The utility also provides funding for employees to exercise on their own time, playing after-hours golf, joining a bowling league, or taking a class. Not only does that funding help with employee health, it also helps build relationships and community, Devich says.

For two years, PGE has hosted farmer’s markets at the plaza outside its building. Last year, the markets went for four weeks in August and September. This year, they were held every Thursday from late June until September. The utility reached out to a facilitator who sets up farmer’s markets around Portland and opened the markets up to the community. They’ve been a big hit.

“People from the surrounding buildings come,” Devich says.

The company’s reaching out to employees who work outside the main office, too. For example, a recent brown-bag lunch with cardiologist James Beckerman was made available as a webinar.

Shrinking waistlines

About 1,200 people—employees and spouses—have gotten health screenings through PGE and their own doctors, says Graf. About 750 have done full health assessments online. As a result, the percentage of the utility’s employees with at least three risk factors for metabolic syndrome has dropped from 24 to 16.

About 50 to 100 employees participate in each power break, Devich says. Another 100 took part in a flash mob on the campus of Portland State University, where they danced to the song, “Electric Avenue.” Around 650 took part in this year’s Lighten Up for Good, and they lost a ton—literally—a total of 2,000 pounds.

Through all its efforts, PGE has earned a Fit-friendly Company Gold Award from the American Heart Association, but the true success of its program can be seen in its culture. As employees teamed up to lose weight, the CEO made sure all the vending machines on the top floor sold health snacks rather than candy.

“It’s bottom-up, top-down,” says Devich.

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