Invest In Your Greatest Asset

Programs that encourage professional development and employee well-being benefit staff members and credit unions alike.


At Oregon Community Credit Union ($1.1B; Eugene, OR), Halloween is not just another workday. Every year, the credit union's 250 employees don creative costumes for the cooperative's annual Golden Pumpkin Contest. At the corporate office, where individual departments compete for the best Halloween-themed décor, the IT department turns into a haunted house, complete with fake cobwebs and things that go bump in the night. Work stops for the day as the credit union hands out awards for the best costumes and everyone has a good time.

From a purely business standpoint, the day might not seem terribly productive, but Oregon Community has a steady track record for growth. The credit union crossed the $1 billion mark for assets during the past year and has nearly doubled its size from $400 million seven years ago. The strategy behind events like the Golden Pumpkin Contest is simple. "Employees who are engaged in the workplace are more willing to go above and beyond the call of duty to exceed our members' expectations," says Tracey Keffer, the cooperative's human resources manager.

It's no coincidence many credit unions that score well on third-party questionnaires designed to measure employee satisfaction are also recruiting new members, increasing assets, expanding loan portfolios, or adding branches. Even credit unions with little or no growth report savings from a range of employee engagement programs that lower turnover rates, increase efficiency, and reduce or stabilize health care costs. Engaged employees are more emotionally invested in their jobs, but credit unions rely on a number of initiatives to achieve such commitment. Some have well-developed mentoring programs to shape the credit union's next generation of executives. Others build in opportunities for employees to bond with one another through health and wellness initiatives. And nearly all find ways to help their employees de-stress and blow off steam on company time the way Oregon Community does.

A Healthy Dose Of Preventive Care

quick-facts-investMany credit unions that offer health and wellness programs promote education and healthful habits as much as ways to treat ailments. They use webinars, sponsored walkathons, and weight loss competitions to encourage good habits for nutrition and exercise. Many programs go even further with on-site preventive care that includes flu shots as well as free screenings for blood pressure, glucose, and cholesterol. The credit union generally pays for such accessibility, though some insurers contribute a portion of the expense. Navy FCU ($51.6B; Merrifield, VA) even has a "mammovan" that offers on-site mammograms to female employees and an on-site nurse who administers injections for allergies and other ailments.

Weight loss and physical fitness are a significant component of most credit unions' health and wellness programs. Grow Financial ($1.8B; Tampa, FL), for instance, sponsors a Get Fit Challenge every January. It groups participating employees into teams of four and the teams compete for prizes to lose the most weight in 90 days. The team that loses the highest percentage of its starting weight wins American Express gift cards. Because each team also functions as its own support group, employees often bond with one another to excel during the challenge. More than 80 employees took part in the challenge last year, with the highest individual weight loss recorded at 30 pounds. Vantage West ($1.2B; Tucson, AZ) takes a different approach to weight loss with a contest called No Gain for the Holidays.

"It's not a weight loss program per se, but you don't put on those five to 10 pounds between November and January," says Connie Rank-Smith, assistant vice president for total compensation and awards.

To promote fitness, Vantage West offers on-site yoga classes at lunch time and a walking program year round. Oregon Community sponsors employee bike rides and hikes every August and reimburses employees for half of the expense of gym fees and exercise classes, with a cap of $50 every three months. Navy FCU offers employees free access to a fully equipped gym at the credit union's headquarters. For off-site employees who need an option closer to home, Navy Federal reimburses up to $200 annually for gym membership.

Participation rates in health and wellness programs vary, but to qualify for the best insurance rates, some credit unions require participating employees to take part in annual wellness screenings that insurers consider preventive care. At Vantage West, which offers screenings and health appraisals, 40% of employees are enrolled in the program; at Grow Financial the number is closer to 60%.

But its logistics as much as requirements that play a role in suppressing participation rates.

"The reality is we have 17 different locations," Rank-Smith says. "And the people who work at the branches have a hard time participating."

To increase branch participation, Vantage West offers nutrition and other health classes through webinars. For its No Gain for the Holidays contest, the credit union provided each of its 15 branches with a scale and assigned one on-site employee to record starting and ending weights.

The cost of sponsoring health and wellness programs also vary. Vantage West and Grow Financial each spend between $50,000 and $60,000 annually on their programs. At Oregon Community, which has fewer employees and a more modest budget, the program cost slightly less than $10,000 last year. This year Oregon Community expects to spend only $6,000 because the credit union's insurer contributed $2,000 toward the program. Even when insurers don't kick in funding, credit unions can find ways to take advantage of other freebies. The webinars Vantage West provides are free through its insurer, and its walking program is part of a federally funded wellness initiative in the county where the credit union is based.

Employees who are engaged in the workplace are more willing to go above and beyond the call of duty to exceed our members’ expectations. 

"There are many opportunities for low cost or no cost activities," Rank-Smith says. "You don't have to spend a ton of money."

The payoffs from the programs are mixed but can be significant. Health insurance premiums at Oregon Community, for example, plummeted 15% in 2011, with no change in price this year. Because Oregon Community pays 100% of the employee's insurance premium, "a 15% reduction was huge for us," Keffer says. At the end of the year, Oregon Community shared some of those savings by giving $250 to each employee who was insured through the credit union.

quick-facts-invest-2Vantage West's experience is more typical. Although the credit union didn't reduce its premiums, its prices also haven't increased in the two years the health and wellness program has been in effect. It expects insurance costs to remain the same for the third straight year in 2013.

Too Many Balls, Not Enough Bounce

Even without a health and wellness program, credit unions can boost their employees' health by encouraging them to become more engaged in the workplace. According to a 2011 Gallup study, engaged employees have fewer chronic health conditions such as heart disease, depression, and diabetes. Disengaged colleagues, on the other hand, report just as many ailments as the unemployed.

Oregon Community encourages employee engagement with an annual volunteer day. Every President's Day, Oregon Community's corporate office and all 10 of its branches close so employees can volunteer in groups at one of 15 local charities or nonprofit organizations. The credit union's 250 employees donate more than 2,000 hours of labor on this one day, and Oregon Community pays them for it. Volunteers have cooked and served meals at assisted living facilities and taken apart electronics at an e-recycling center. Staff members from different departments who rarely interact work side by side and form friendships. At the end of the day, employees feel good about not only themselves but also their employer for giving back to the community.

"It makes them feel like they're a part of something bigger than themselves," says Kristi Rysdam, the credit union's community marketing specialist. The credit union continues to pay employees to periodically volunteer throughout the year during the workday, schedules and workloads permitting.

But no matter how many bonding opportunities credit unions create during the workday, employees can't be engaged in the workplace if they're overwhelmed by the competing demands of work and family. One of Vantage West's health webinars, Too Many Balls and Not Enough Bounce, addresses that work-life balance.

"People feel a lot of personal stress and are looking for help," Rank-Smith says.

To help employees achieve a better work-life balance, Spokane Teacher's Credit Union ($1.7B; Spokane, WA) offers compressed work weeks, flex time, telecommuting, and up to two hours of paid time off during the school year to attend parent teacher conferences or other events.

BECU ($10.8B; Seattle, WA) offers a work-from-home program that has contributed to a 30% decline in absenteeism for staff members who telecommute compared to those who work in the office. Why the difference?

"On days when people are feeling under the weather, they tell us they're well enough to work from home but not well enough to handle the commute," says Nathan Hickman, BECU's remote workforce manager.

In the end, the most effective and inexpensive way to boost employee engagement lies in recognizing and acknowledging their work. Navy Federal, for instance, helps employees de-stress with a 20-minute on-site massage that employees pay just $10 for. Some managers even treat staff members to the service as a reward for good work, says Jeanette Mack, manager of corporate communications. Trumark Financial schedules several events throughout the year — ranging from laid-back pizza parties to a formal black-tie dinner that celebrates employee work — to show its appreciation. But one of Trumark's most effective ways of encouraging employee engagement doesn't cost a cent: It's just a simple, old-fashioned, hand-written thank you note.