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Feb 5, 2024
How Vermont Electric Cooperative built a successful, inclusive employee wellness program for workers in dozens of locations

Health and safety are essential in every industry, but they are paramount concerns at Vermont Electric Cooperative, whose employees keep the power on in northern Vermont.

The company’s continuing excellence is reflected in its participation in the Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP), administered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Worksites accepted into the VPP must exhibit exemplary occupational safety and health practices. “Every five years we go through a recertification process with the VPP program,” said Katie Orost, a transmission and rate specialist who leads the cooperative’s wellness team. “They do a complete overview of our safety program, wellness being one of the aspects recertified.”

A culture of wellness and working together

Vermont Electric serves about 33,000 homes and businesses in 75 rural communities. About 60 of its 106 employees work in the field. They’re out in all but the most extreme weather, climbing poles, replacing lines, checking meters, maintaining substations – whatever is needed. Office-based employees work in areas such as finance and communications.

The VPP requires that employees play a key role in developing, implementing, and maintaining health and safety measures. At Vermont Electric, about 50 employees sit on 10 specialized safety committees. Most of the teams meet monthly – a substantial time commitment made possible by the support of management, Orost said.

“We have a wellness team, a training team, a communications team,” she said. “The safety manager and the safety tech are members of the teams but don't lead them. We drive it.”  

Staying safe indoors and out, in good weather and bad

The cooperative brings in physical therapists to help workers avoid new physical issues and address existing ones. “We found that ergonomics is key, both for inside employees and outside employees,” Orost said. “We have a physical therapy company that comes and does a monthly check-in. They go to each of our four districts. They’ll go over different stretches or ways to avoid slips and falls. That’s been our biggest program.”

Cigna Healthcare, which provides health benefits to Vermont Electric’s employees and their families, is a partner in the cooperative’s journey to a healthier workplace. “We work with the client closely,” said Katie Greco, the health engagement consultant at Cigna Healthcare who supports Vermont Electric. The physical therapists and other wellness initiatives, such as a tracker encouraging healthy activities, are available through Cigna Healthcare.

“The wellness tracker has been a huge hit this year,” Orost said. “We try to cover all aspects of an employee’s health. We have a list of about 30 activities that folks can participate in. If they do 10 or more of the activities in three of our categories, they can earn incentive money.” The categories include physical activity outside of work, such as a 5K run or planting a garden; physical activity during the workday, such taking a walk; health awareness and prevention, such as getting a health assessment or being vaccinated; and physical, emotional, and financial well-being activities.

In 2023, Vermont Electric doubled the amount of the incentive offered to employees, from $100 to $200. Participation rose from 65% of employees to 95%.

Encouraging health and wellness is a win-win for the business and its employees

The incentive money is not the only financial benefit employees can access for healthy activities. The cooperative also offers reimbursements of up to $200 a year per employee for wellness activities. “If you want to run a 5K, we’ll reimburse you for the registration, but we’ll also cover your children, your spouse, your partner, so they can participate with you,” Orost said. “If you buy a treadmill or you have a gym membership or you need soccer cleats for your son, those are all reimbursable expenses. Vermont is a very outdoorsy state, so we offer reimbursement for ski passes, state park passes, even hunting licenses.” About 80% of employees take advantage of the reimbursement program.

The cooperative’s wellness efforts pay off in better health, which is better for the bottom line. “We realized that part of our health insurance premiums is a direct reflection of our claims,” she said. In addition, high-deductible health plans incentivize the use of effective but lower-cost options, such as urgent care instead of the emergency room when appropriate. “It’s not only to save money for the company,” she said. “It’s to save money for the employees as well.”

That healthful outlook is evident in other ways, too. “Five years ago, we started providing healthy snacks to folks. That was the big switch,” she said. Today, the company provides fruit and other healthy snacks. “Now I can go get a package of oatmeal for a Monday morning snack vs. going to the vending machine and getting something unhealthy.”

Cigna Healthcare has been a partner throughout the process. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. The Cigna team has always been great to share best practices with us,” she said. “We had a health fair recently, and we really wanted to do chair massages, but I couldn’t find anyone. And I asked Katie, and she came up with a list of five different places to call.” The provider Orost chose took part in the health fair and now visits Vermont Electric each month.

Building relationships – with providers, but more importantly, among employees – is the employee wellness program’s biggest success, she said. “With the wellness challenge, you form a team of employees to do it with you, and there’s some healthy competition there. We have a corporate cup that’s a state race in Montpellier each year. We bring a lot of family members to participate, and then we have an afterparty at one of our senior leader’s houses, where she provides pizza. It’s the camaraderie – and we’re a close-knit group of employees.”

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