Dale Labaron, along with his wife, Joanne, started Lincoln Industries 30 years ago in their garage. The business, which employs about 600 workers, produces nickel-plated products (gears, mufflers, accessories) used by automobile and motorcycle manufacturers. Lincoln is a company where worker health is as important as business results to company leaders. As Dale’s son Mark, now CEO, explains, “great things happen when you create a culture that supports people, not employees.”

What about achieving a positive return-on-investment (ROI)? “You can never get a big enough ROI in any analysis – because the positive impact that culture imparts on people is not measurable,” says Labaron. “It’s the telling of individual stories that mark a program’s success.”

Publicly recognizing employees for their work and health achievements is a big part of Lincoln’s culture. At a monthly recognition event, employees (from the CEO on down) gather to recognize fellow workers, or teams of workers, who have made a significant contribution to the business that month. But, what sets Lincoln apart is an annual all expenses paid climb to the peak of a 10,000-foot-high Colorado mountain, earned by workers who have achieved good health outcomes, and led by the company’s senior executives. Employee coaches support fellow workers on the day-long hike, which begins at three in the morning and ends sometime in the afternoon on a designated July weekend.

The mountain climb is described by those who participate as “life-changing.” As one worker explains, “Here you are confronting a significant personal challenge alongside your fellow employees – your boss, your subordinate, and your co-worker – all of whom are at your side with a common goal in mind. Talk about team-building; this is the ultimate experience.” Annually, over 100 employees, from as young as 18 and some into their 60’s, participate in the mountain climb. Following the six-to-eight-hour hike, workers end their day with at an awards dinner -- a celebration of the employees’ physical, social, and emotional achievements.

How do you prepare a workforce for this type of challenge? That’s Gregg Howe’s job. Lincoln hired Howe in 2007 to head up the company’s health promotion efforts. Until then, the program had been straightforward: achieve certain health goals (specific BMI, blood pressure, and cholesterol targets), and don’t smoke. If you do that, you qualify for lower insurance premiums, along with an invitation to the annual mountain climb. Howe decided to introduce a more comprehensive approach. He “dialed down” the importance of quarterly screenings (now only required annually) and introduced programs that allowed more workers to become engaged and be recognized for good health, broadly defined as physical, emotional, social, financial, intellectual, and spiritual well-being.

For example, the company opened HealthyU, an on-site health clinic -- available five days a week to employees, spouses and dependents eligible for the company’s insurance plan. The clinic provides urgent care for sore throats, headaches, strains, and infections, as well as health assessments and biometric screenings and an eHealth portal for personal health records, health information and scheduling. Company CEO Labaron also contributed his personal wealth to build a state-of-the-art fitness facility at company headquarters. In addition, Lincoln provides balanced food choices at all company events. Healthy foods represent 75% of items sold in vending machines, are 25 cents cheaper than non-healthy items, and are placed on top rows of the machines.

Lincoln sponsors a 10-week “life plan” personalized training program to help workers achieve personal and professional life goals. The program focuses on personal and professional “things that matter” linked back to workers’ health and fitness. It also offers Fuel for Performance” courses that teach employees how to gain increased energy and be higher- performing through healthy eating, physical activity, and adequate sleep. Other opportunities for improved well-being include support for volunteerism, participation in community recreation activities, and access to “emotional wellness” resources. Ten-minute stretches precede all shifts, and a physical therapist is on staff to treat and prevent musculoskeletal problems. Employees are offered flexible scheduling, assuming they work out arrangements with their co-workers to fill in.

Significantly, company leaders are held accountable for employees’ health and well- being. They are rated on the extent to which they adhere to the company’s core values, one of which reads as follows: “Wellness and healthy lifestyle are important to our success.” In addition, leaders are rated on whether they lead by example and bonuses are tied to their individual and subordinates’ health status.

Employees are also held accountable for good health. They are asked to set annual wellness objectives, which are evaluated at their performance reviews. Those objectives are determined by employees themselves and can range from achieving a certain number of pull-ups or push-ups, being present at family dinners, or getting a minimum of seven hours of sleep each night. To achieve the highest health or “platinum” status, and be qualified for the annual mountain climb, employees must be tobacco-free, not have any risk factors that would make them candidates for metabolic syndrome (obesity, high blood pressure, high blood glucose, high triglycerides), and complete an on-line wellness assessment.

Lincoln’s manufacturing facilities present a tough work environment. In the winter, the plants are very cold and during the summer very hot. Work is often monotonous and physically taxing, but people want to work there. The wait list for new hires is long, even though the wages are average. When hiring workers, fellow employees and managers seek recruits who they believe would feel comfortable with Lincoln’s culture. Their philosophy: talent and skills can be trained, but one’s personality and willingness to be a part of a healthy environment need to be “givens.” As one employee remarked, “We have ‘skin in the game’ so we have to make sure the new employee will fit in.”

What are Lincoln’s results? Medical costs have remained flat since 2008, with no changes in benefit plan design. Injury and turnover rates are lower than national, regional, and industry averages. Smoking prevalence has dropped from 50% in 2000 to 13% in 2013. Being realistic and practical, the company’s health improvement goals are modest and achievable – improve the overall health risk profile of workers by one half percentage point (net) each year.

What do the employees think about the culture? As one worker explained, “It’s great – I get compensated to be healthy.” Employees report being supported for health improvement through positive peer pressure and a sense of camaraderie. “We’re a big family. Everyone steps up to help one another regardless of job level,” summed up another employee. Workers also report that they appreciate that leaders are held accountable for creating a healthy company culture; they “walk the talk – they believe in good health and live it.”

As Labaron summarized, “There’s a difference between a program and a culture. We have a culture.”

Written with support by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation