Friday, June 5, 2020

Employers should ramp up their employee wellness programs

As your workplace goes back into operation you will notice that your coworkers look a little different.

It’s just not their shaggy hair or grey streaks showing because of the barbershop and salon closures. It’s also their waistlines: Due to inactivity, stay-at-home orders, and increased consumption due to boredom or depression, many people packed on what some health officials are calling “the Covid 15”.

Quite a few of my coworkers fall into that category, having put on anywhere from 12 to 25 pounds. By the vigorous nature of our work -- the lifting, cutting and fast tempo – they’ll burn off most of that this summer.

Other Americans aren’t afforded that chance because they work behind a register or a desk. A lot of them will lose that weight once the State allows gyms to open, but many more won’t in the foreseeable future. Two to three months equals a lifestyle change; the weight they put on could stay and maybe add a few friends along the way. It’s mentally and physically hard for people to get back into the saddle after such downtime and such impact.

Alas, the outcome of society fighting Covid collectively could make these people fight Covid individually. You see, the coronavirus hit hardest not just the aged but also people with conditions like diabetes and heart and lung diseases. All of those triggers have some if not all basis in the lack of physical activity and/or the enjoyment of vices or bad decisions, such as a poor diet or smoking. So, the various government lockdowns in effect created candidates ripe for pillaging by the virus.  

What we can we do as a society to right that wrong?

I challenge employers to really ramp up their employee wellness programs.

At some businesses, these voluntary – sometimes compulsory – programs are done in an effort to cut back on ever-rising health insurance costs by changing the behaviors of the insured. The bottom line only drives the endeavor and can seem disingenuous.

At other workplaces, these programs are a little less toothless, and maybe a little too cute, attempting to improve outcomes through group activities and challenges, some of them never being enough to change the person or the world.     

It’s time to ditch those mindsets (well, at least make them secondary) and approach wellness in an entirely different way: A strong and healthy body is a necessary weapon in the fight against Covid-19. It protects the person, their families and the community.

How long will the virus be with us? What will nature or biological warfare come up with next?

We could be looking at years of a public health roller coaster as the world fights waves of this and whatever else comes our way.  We need to be ready to win those battles and the war.

To make the pursuit of health attractive you need to give your employees the tools to succeed, just like you would in their workstation. That starts with an employee benefit -- money.

If your insurance company doesn’t have a wellness benefit, start your own. Because our previous versions through our HMOs weren’t the best in terms of consistency or depth, we started our own at the plant on January 1 – coincidentally, the best year to do it.

Through our program, we fund each member of our team up to $200 a year for a gym membership. But, knowing gyms aren’t for everyone – especially now as we navigate the Covid world – we also made that $200 available for home exercise equipment – universal gyms, free weights, heavy bags, kettle bells, yoga mats, treadmills, bicycles and other items. That’s what I meant by giving your employees the tools they need – these literally are tools.  

But, employer commitment is more than just dollars. It’s also constant messaging in your employee newsletters and finding them venues of support and training they may need.

Making such an outlay of money and time may seem unreasonable to some business owners. They should to look at the return on that investment: Healthier employees are happier employees; good health mitigates sick time and prevents downtime of your services or production lines; being able to battle Covid limits the chances of the virus bringing liability to the workplace; and there’s the outcome that wellness programs had always strived for – lower health insurance costs in the long term due to markedly and positively changed personal behaviors.

But, beyond the almighty dollar, do it because it’s right. Covid can have scary – and fatal -- impacts on families. So can all of the ailments that make some people targets for the coronavirus’s worst. Let’s give those we work with the kick in the butt, the incentive they need to live healthier and longer lives. Life’s too short as it is, let’s live it well.

From the 08 June 2020 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Friday, May 29, 2020

Don’t let a good summer go to waste

Last week, our team at the local Boy Scout council made the difficult decision to suspend summer camp operations at Camp Dittmer and Sam Wood while also canceling the regional day camps we had scheduled for local Cub Scouts. It was a path of safety and concern also recently taken by other scout councils across the state, the Girl Scouts, and operators of other youth camps.

At the same time, other summer events for kids have been dropping like flies – youngsters won’t get to do things like play in little league, watch Independence Day community fireworks, ride the rides at the Olcott Carousel Park, attend county fairs, or enjoy refreshing splash pads.  

As the dad of four young kids and someone who serves local youth, I find this a little heartbreaking.

Childhood is fleeting. Like our precious and short WNY summers, those years go by so fast…too fast. As a parent you want every summer to be special, memories to be made, traditions to be created and carried on, and the innocence of youth to be savored.

You can’t let a good summer go to waste.

And, you shouldn’t.

Just because the world has changed so dramatically around us doesn’t mean the kids – and their parents -- should be denied fun. Do as the kid running the stand down the block has done: Turn lemons into lemonade. Rather than obsessing over what could have been, what should have been, plan now to make this the best summer ever.

Invest in your backyard. In this world of lockdowns and stay-at-home orders there’s no place safer to be than home -- and, there’s no place better to spend your “play” money. With destination vacations now seeming like some quaint relic, staycations will become the norm for the foreseeable future. Get a swimming pool or a spa. Install a basketball hoop. Set-up a playset. Build a Whiffle Ball park or volleyball court. Make your place the place to be. Your kids will love that their yard has become a playground. So will you. There’s something to be said about relaxation and play just outside your backdoor.  

Go camping. Since you’ll be staying away from theme parks and hotels, go back to basics. Rough it, whether your idea of that is renting a small lodge on an Adirondack lake, taking your camping trailer to a campground, or pitching a tent in a state forest. The opportunities to spend nights in the wilds are limitless and available at any price level, including for free. The memories to be had around campfires, sleeping under a starry nighttime sky, and encountering wild beasts are hard to beat.   

Take to the water. Access to water in WNY is an embarrassment of riches…waters of all shapes and sizes abound, from small streams to the Genesee and Niagara Rivers to the Great Lakes and Finger Lakes to the history-defining Erie Canal. There are so many opportunities to put a motor boat in the water, go kayaking and canoeing, take up fishing, and do what young kids absolutely love to do – kick around a creek looking for minnows, crayfish and salamanders. You could literally visit a different body or stretch of water every day of summer and still not put a dent in what the region has to offer.  

Go hiking and biking. Equally abundant are the hiking and biking opportunities in the region. Nature trails are everywhere, the Erie Canalway Trail is an absolute gem, there are the “Alabama Swamps”, Letchworth, and countless state forests in the Southern Tier. Get the family on the move. It’s exercise -- and it’s also good for the soul to be in nature, exploring, seeing and doing…and getting muddy.  

Hang out at the ballpark. Just because there’s no baseball, softball or soccer this year doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be opportunities for your sons and daughters to develop their skills or play pick-up games with the whole family. You don’t have to be the second coming of Ted Williams expounding on the science of hitting a baseball -- just be you and focus on fundamentals, with an emphasis on the “fun”. Your kids will appreciate that they have the chance to hit and field. Ten or twenty years from now they’ll likely more fondly remember the nights spent shagging flies with dad than they will the team practices held in normal years.  

I could go on and on about what families can do to wring every drop of excellence out of this summer. There won’t be summer camps, day camps, and crowded places to visit, but that shouldn’t cause one to believe that the next few months will be duds.

Life is what you make of it.

So is the summer.

So is childhood. 

Don’t let any of those go to waste.

From the 01 June 2020 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Friday, May 22, 2020

Public speaking: An important life skill

By now, you’re probably sick of me being in the press.

Not only are you subjected to this weekly column but recently I haven’t been able to stay off radio and television as I’ve been game for countless interviews related to my company’s re-opening after the coronavirus shutdown.

Being able to do that wasn’t always so easy.  

When I was a high school student 30 years ago, I, like most teenagers, dreaded public speaking. The butterflies would kick up in my stomach and I couldn’t wait for the ordeal to be over.

Fortunately, at least from my standpoint at the time, such activities were rare – we might have made one or two presentations a year and I could always lean on the equally-uncomfortable fellow speakers as we almost always spoke as groups, never singularly.

Luckily, I had Scouting to dramatically change my view of public speaking in the closing years of my school life. Being put into positions of leadership and working at summer camp as a counselor made me develop public speaking skills first out of necessity then out of enjoyment.

Because of the shot in the arm that the Boy Scouts gave me I have a critical skill available in my arsenal. The 45-year-old version of myself is not like the 15 year-old Bob Confer: I look forward to speaking to groups and talking about things I enjoy, be it work, Scouting, nature or public policy (well, I don’t really enjoy public policy but you get my drift).

Public speaking is a regular part of my life. Not only do I deliver multiple weekly shift meetings at the plant to dozens of my coworkers at a time, but looking back at my 2019 calendar there were another 20 occasions when I had to speak to groups of more than 10 people at a time. They could have been tours or speaking engagements, or participating on panels -- I didn’t even count running board or business meetings.

As I write this, I’m kind of taken aback by how often I find myself in speaking roles.

Maybe I was unaware of how often it happens because I see it not as one of life’s woes, but rather as one of life’s duties as a businessman or citizen. It’s a normal part of being.

That’s a way of thinking we need to share with students today. They, their parents and guidance counselors are always looking to help them develop demonstrable – and marketable -- skill sets that can be used to further their academic and, ultimately, work careers.

Public speaking should be one of them.

As a kid, you don’t see a payoff in the stress as you learn the art, but as an adult you see the limitless potential: you could use it at work in the private sector as a manager, sales person, project leader or newsman; in the public sector you would find it as an asset as a teacher or town councilperson; in volunteerism you would see its value in running a little league team, fire department, fundraiser, or church. You truly never know when you will need it – but you should be ready.

But, how do we prepare teens for that?

For the most part, school courses lack public speaking training exercises. The frequency of such activities is no different in 2020 than it was back in 1990 and it might even be less today due to the countless mandates state and federal governments put on education.   

So, the focus needs to be on the extra-curricular – as mine was.

The classroom is just one part of your child’s foundation – get him or her into a program that would complement and supplement it. You can always recognize the young adults who did a little more at school (they were in drama club, student government or Future Farmers of America) or they were in an out-of-school organization that gave them confidence and abilities (Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, 4-H).

But, what about those for whom it might be too late – the moms and dads of those kids?

It’s never too late!

Some adults don’t find their comfort level in public speaking until well into their 30s, after work and volunteerism forced it upon them. Most adults never do – no doubt you’ve heard many a time that the average person fears speaking to the masses more than death.

But, you can overcome those insecurities no matter your age. If you missed out in high school or college, there’s always Toastmasters, a wonderful program that fosters communication skills in a warm, guiding group setting in which speakers help you and you help them. There are such clubs that meet regularly in Western New York, even in this era of social distancing -- many are holding Zoom get-togethers, which further helps the newbies to get rid of their anxieties.

Public speaking should never be feared. It should be savored and developed. If someone can master it – to be confident, fluid, knowledgeable and engaging in front of groups – they will set-up themselves and their organizations for success.

From the 25 May 2020 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News