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Walking the Talk: GE Employees Make Healthier Choices Around the Globe


Team activity in The Netherlands

GE takes employee wellness very seriously, and for the past two years the company has increased its efforts to educate employees about health issues, encourage health-inducing lifestyles, and sponsor activities that get employees — and their families — involved. Sounds pretty straightforward.

Now consider the fact that GE employs over 300,000 people in more than 100 countries. With staff working in a huge range of roles, in dozens of sectors and spanning countless cultures, there’s no such thing as a typical GE employee. So how do you make such a program work for everyone?

For GE, the answer is to create a clear and flexible program framework that is managed by local staff, in locally relevant ways. It’s wellness devolution. It’s called HealthAhead.

“While our work force is extremely diverse, some things are consistent across all cultures — the importance of immunizations and regular health checks, having a balanced diet, getting exercise, avoiding tobacco,” says Ellen Prenelus, program leader for HealthAhead at GE. “So there’s quite a bit we can do centrally to support the local teams. But the key thing is to empower local choice.”


Promoting a Culture of Health

The strategy for HealthAhead as a corporate initiative is based on a few core beliefs:

  • Respect for individual choice.The program makes a point of not being coercive, acknowledging that how people take care of themselves — what they eat, how they manage stress, how they exercise — are highly personal choices.
  • Multiple ways for people to take part.By providing a wide range of easy options, people can engage with HealthAhead in ways that work for them.
  • Senior staff involvement.Central to the concept of HealthAhead is active and visible participation by GE leaders. Not only does this demonstrate that the business takes employee wellness seriously, but it has an added benefit of bringing staff and management closer together.

“It’s important to practice what we preach to the outside world, for example through our healthymagination initiative or GE Healthcare’s Get Fit campaign about cancer prevention, which is running right now on Twitter,” Prenalus says. “HealthAhead is not just about employee wellness, it’s about walking the talk.”


Educate, Don’t Dictate!

Culture matters. Of course it does. We all have preferences, values and personal boundaries that reflect how and where we were brought up. We may also share physiological traits with our workmates that can make us susceptible to certain health conditions more than others. So HealthAhead can look quite different, depending where you are.

In French culture, people tend to maintain a clear separation between their professional life and personal life. Socializing with colleagues (other than close friends) outside of working hours is a rarity. And the idea of bringing one’s family to a work-sponsored event is completely alien.

“At some sites in the US, for example, employees were asked to be filmed at home, as a way to help them change they way they eat,” says Ghislaine Mariannie, training manager and HealthAhead leader at GE Healthcare’s site in Buc. “In France you could never do that. French people like to be well informed about health, but they want to make their own decisions.”

This made it quite a challenge for the HealthAhead team in Buc to meet the program requirement of putting on a family-focused event. So they took advantage of the natural link between the work of GE Healthcare employees and the HealthAhead program. Experts on staff who regularly speak at conferences and to customers were asked to share their knowledge with the staff. One presentation was targeted to children — explaining how medical scanning works.

“The first thing we heard from staff was: ‘Stay out of our private life,’” says Mariannie. “But after that initial response, people gradually got involved. We ended up with 1,200 people at the event, and people are still talking about it. They were proud to show their company to their family.”


Food and Fitness

Many Americans have a hard time maintaining a healthy weight and level of physical fitness, so in Barrington, Illinois, a big part of HealthAhead involves physical activity and nutrition. There is a regular stream of organized walks, bike rides and runs — during the week and on weekends — all sponsored by a GE Healthcare manager.

They also invite local-area athletes — people who have played on professional teams and now work as trainers — to give talks to the staff. The onsite fitness center provides gym facilities as well as special classes, such as yoga and stretching. Since HealthAhead began, the fitness center has seen a 71 percent jump in membership.

Nutrition is central to every HealthAhead program. In Barrington, it goes a lot farther than serving healthy meal options in the cafeteria.

Every week on “free fruit day” people are encouraged to eat a piece of fruit with their lunch or as a snack. Nutrition education includes demonstrations such as “Build a Better Salad” and “Eat Like Don” day, during which a senior executive talks about the challenges of maintaining a good diet while travelling for business, and staff are challenged to eat exactly what Don Woodlock, vice president and general manager for Specialty Solutions, eats on that day.

“We know from employee feedback that leadership involvement is critical,” says Tony Sikorski, general manager of GE Healthcare IT Supply Chain and Barrington site HealthAhead executive. “One of the important outcomes of HealthAhead is that it has helped the company create a more personal connection with employees and their families that’s beyond the traditional employer-employee relationship. We see that in Barrington.”


Make Soba, Not Stress

Health education is a focus in Japan, where a high incidence of chronic disease and cancer is linked to the country’s aging population. And while the smoking rate is going down among Japanese men, it is actually rising among women. Stress and mental health, too, are key areas of attention, as Japan has the highest suicide rate in the world.

“Japanese people are very hard working, and there is a lot of pressure at GE to achieve your goals,” says Hirotaka Murata, general manager of GE Healthcare’s Hino plant and a HealthAhead champion. “So in addition to stress-reducing activities and education about mental health for employees, we have a mandatory training for all managers, to make clear their role in taking care of employees.”

In the aftermath of the recent earthquake and tsunami north of Tokyo, GE expanded its mental health services, dispatching a company doctor to meet with all of the employees living near the affected areas. Fortunately, no GE Healthcare employee was killed or injured in the disaster, but some lost members of their family and others’ homes were damaged or destroyed.

There are several ways for employees to get support. For instance, a mental health physician visits the Hino site once a month. A 24-hour help line is available through a GE-contracted service. And GE’s employee assistance programme (EAP) offers mental health services to all employees.

“Our employees see that the company invests a lot,” Murata says. “We can use the sports center free of charge. We get health checks for the entire family. And there are fun events for everyone — hiking, tennis, family events. We even sponsored a cooking class where staff learned how to make soba noodles. So through HealthAhead people see that health is fundamental — to ourselves as well as our business.”


Healthy eating was the focus of this cooking class, where GE Healthcare employees in Hino, Japan, learned how to make soba noodles