Business of Well-being

A Wellness Partnership Well Worth Toasting

A Wellness Partnership Well Worth Toasting

I have a job that makes me the envy of many people around the world: I am the CEO of a winery. For most people that conjures up images of grape-stomping festivals, bountiful picnics amidst Sonoma County vineyards and long evenings by the fire with a great glass of "Old Vines" Zinfandel. There is all of that. But a thriving winery like St. Francis Winery is still a business and, as with any business, it comes with its fair share of challenges, including employee health.

As with most businesses, healthcare costs are a heavy burden to the bottom line. So it makes sense to encourage employees to be healthy. At St. Francis Winery, a majority of our 138 employees are skilled laborers charged with very physical duties that require them to be constantly on the move. They work an array of jobs that support the planting, growing, harvesting, winemaking, bottling and distribution of our products.

Thus, they need to be particularly healthy. In recent years, wineries like ours have seen rising healthcare costs and increasing employee absenteeism-both of which impact productivity. Though we didn't have a clear picture of why costs were rising at businesses like ours, we knew we needed to get to the root of the problem. I became familiar with a new worksite wellness concept - the Workforce Health Initiative -- being offered by St. Joseph Health System in our county.

After meeting with St. Joseph's Workforce Health Initiative representative and hearing about the success of the program at other local worksites, we were convinced that St. Joseph's program offered a number of advantages that other wellness plans could not offer. For example:

  • The program sponsor, St. Joseph Health System-Sonoma County, has long been the health and wellness pillar of our community and a trusted source of healthcare information. We knew any program we introduced with St. Joseph would have instant credibility in the eyes of our employees.
  • The program's mission and approach were consistent with the values of St. Francis Winery: quality products, quality people and quality relationships.
  • The Workforce Health Initiative was available at a very low cost for local employers - an important distinction in today's difficult economic climate.
  • The program was developed in collaboration between St. Joseph and Aegis Health Group, in Nashville, Tennessee, a highly regarded workforce health partner.

Rolling Out the Workforce Health Initiative

After initial planning, a small team of individuals put together a three-step launch plan for our Workforce Health Initiative that consisted of:

1. An onsite kick-off program of screenings and health risk assessments.

2. Identification of primary issues and high-risk areas specific to St. Francis' workforce.

3. Development and implementation of health education workshops to focus on prevention and lifestyle management to help give employees the information and motivation to live fuller and healthier lives.

Our kick-off program was held in our outdoor park and included both English- and Spanish-speaking nurses and nurse practitioners to take blood draws, check blood pressure, discuss health and diet, and explain the importance of preventive health screenings and healthy lifestyle choices. The kick-off was very exciting-with plenty of healthy snacks and natural juice offerings-and we had virtually 100 percent participation from employees.  

The mere act of having everyone there discussing health and wellness was very powerful - and empowering. For many of the employees, this was the first time anyone had acknowledged the importance of their personal health and happiness or offered them a health profile to assess their health.

All information was collected confidentially. The hospital later presented our management team with aggregate population health data, allowing us to better understand which health issues affect our population. What we discovered was eye opening. Despite enjoying one of the best health insurance packages in our local industry:

  • More than half of our employees had no primary care physician (the national average is 23.5 percent).
  • 42.7 percent had never had a physical exam, compared to a national average of around 10 percent.
  • Nearly half had high blood pressure (hypertension).
  • 29.3 percent of employees had high triglycerides and 8.1 percent were severely obese.
  • 7.1 percent had diabetes and 4.9 percent had high glucose levels, a precursor for diabetes.
  • Almost one in three employees smoked.
  • Upwards of 27 percent of workers complained of depression.

Clearly it was time to change our culture about wellness. Since the majority of our employee health issues revolved around lifestyle choices, we set a strategic goal to positively impact the health of our employees through prevention, intervention and management. The tactical tools we have since implemented to support our goals include:

  • Quarterly company-wide lifestyle seminars to focus on nutrition, exercise, stress management, smoking cessation and the importance of preventive screenings.
  • Linking employees to health specialists who can address their specific health issues, as identified by the individual's initial health risk assessment.
  • Mailings and emails of health awareness and improvement messages and hospital-sponsored interventions.
  • Sponsorship of healthy activities and events to encourage healthy living, such as lunch-time walks, healthy snacking and hydration awareness.
  • Encouraging family participation. By encouraging employees to discuss health issues at home with their families, we felt we could achieve greater family buy-in and increase chances for successful lifestyle changes at home.
  • Role modeling by senior management, ensuring that they "walk the talk" and set a good example for others.

We found that the more information we shared with employees and their families, the more contagious the program became. Information is power and it's hard to close an informed and open mind. When you enlighten people about the power of their choices, it's like a light bulb goes off. Armed with the right information, people can and do make better choices.


Since implementing the program, we have been able to identify and address significant health risks that could have led to serious employee illnesses. That change doesn't happen overnight. Change is incremental, and we're on the right path. We have started referring our employees to St. Joseph's Mobile Health Clinic for medical care and have offered flu shots on-site.

By catching potentially serious health and wellness issues early, we are reducing employee absenteeism and enhancing productivity and foresee reducing future claims costs.  The projected year one savings will be in the $40,000 range.In addition, our program also serves to remind employees that they have a stake in their own health and wellness, and that their ability to be healthy and well is largely in their own hands.

Like any employer, St. Francis must continue to play a leadership role in bettering people's lives-both inside and outside of our company. We chose to lead by example. Employee health and wellness knowledge elevates health awareness and engagement not just throughout our company, but across our community at large.

I encourage all business leaders to respect and empower their employees by giving them information and the tools to help them live healthier and better lives. Our Workforce Health Initiative program does precisely that.

About the Author

A fifth-generation native of Sonoma County, Calif., Christopher Silva  became chief operating officer of the winery, traveling the world as its spokesperson. Five years later, he became president and CEO. He currently serves as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, a voluntary position.

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