American Airlines employs about nine hundred thousand people worldwide, and Mary Anderson has spent the past few decades advancing their health and happiness from the company’s headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas. The average career span at the largest airline in the world is about twenty years, and Anderson knows firsthand that the company’s top-notch care programs play an integral role in that.
“There’s a lot of job fulfillment. There’s never a dull moment,” explains Anderson, who recently retired after thirty-seven years at the company. “My goal all along has been to create this culture of health and safety.”
Anderson believes it’s critical to have a sound corporate wellness program as a long-term employer. When employees don’t take care of themselves, she explains, companies will pay roughly five times as much when they’re older from time lost due to medical issues.
“Healthcare is a way of investing in people,” Anderson says. “It’s not only a way of showing employees you care about them and their families, but it also promotes better engagement with the employer.”
To the surprise of some, though, the former managing director of health and wellness originally studied accounting. Anderson earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration at the University of Nebraska, and after graduation, she joined a Big Eight accounting firm as an internal auditor. But at age twenty-four, intrigued by the travel industry, she joined the accounting department at American Airlines. She knew she was at the right place but soon realized she wanted to seek a different role. “One of the best things about American Airlines is that they let you go into different areas,” Anderson says.
She moved into a marketing role in revenue management and then, in the early 1990s, found her home in human resources. “I used a lot of my financial background but for the people side of the business rather than strictly the numbers,” Anderson says. “I felt a sense of purpose there.” She delved into the fields of compensation, HRIS, and strategic business partnerships and was promoted to managing director of compensation in 2005. Five years later, she landed in the benefits and productivity group, which would eventually become a comprehensive health and wellness function under her leadership.
Her father, a personnel manager at Campbell’s, shaped her leadership outlook. “He told me early in my career, ‘Take care of your people, and they’ll take care of you,’’’ Anderson recalls. She spent time understanding the motivations of employees and ensuring they felt their work was meaningful and supported. “Our airline moves people, but that’s just the function,” she adds. “Really, we’re connecting people to their families, to their jobs, in times of happiness like weddings, and in less happy times. It’s important that people get to where they need to go.”
As a result, Anderson zeroed in on absence management—a crucial facet of productivity. Although her team tracked lost time and ensured compliance with labor laws, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act that was established in 1993, Anderson took it one step further by looking at the root causes behind the numbers—and patterns in the claims emerged. Her team also offered cash rewards to employees who opted for biometric screenings and health coaches. That’s when they discovered systemic issues within the workforce that her team needed to
The same medical conditions were affecting employees, and musculoskeletal pain topped the list. “Our employees do a lot of physically demanding jobs, whether they’re on the ramp carrying the bags, up and down ladders working on the aircraft, or the pilots and flight attendants sitting in a cramped space for a long time,” she says. “It’s hard on the body. So we focused on ways to help our people learn to move correctly.”
Her team brought on-site resources to several American Airlines locations, helping employees learn to stretch, build, and condition their bodies to avoid injuries on the job.
“We have evolved from HR just being hire-and-pay to a group that really supports our people, because people are our profit,” Anderson says. “If employees don’t feel the support from the company, then they won’t give the support to our passengers and customers.”
Taking individual preventive actions is not only geared to improve occupational health, but also to improve productivity company-wide, according to Anderson. She describes the perspective shift as “employees engaging in their health as a way of engaging in their jobs.” From the onset, Anderson realized that access to care can be difficult for airline employees. For example, if an employee has a doctor’s appointment, they may lose an entire workday to travel time because of locations on the outskirts and the need to go back and forth through airport security. “We really wanted to give them more affordable access to care,” she says.
As a result, in 2015, Anderson’s team revamped and implemented eleven on-site health clinics through a partnership with Premise Health. Now, roughly 80 percent of American Airlines’ employees have access to immediate care and biometric screenings with low $20 copays and free preventive care services, such as flu shots. These clinics are safe and secure options.
“It’s really a place where employees can go and get the treatments they need to get back to work,” Anderson says. “Plus, it’s much more affordable for them. The cost of acute care is less than half of what it would be at a primary care physician or an urgent care center.”
Today, American Airlines prioritizes access to more holistic healthcare among its transient workforce. To do so, Anderson spearheaded the Doctor On Demand service. With this service, employees can call a doctor and get a prescription wherever they are. “They can use it for their kids in the middle of the night or for themselves during a layover,” she says. “It’s a really quick way to get care.”
Mental and emotional health services also serve employees on the front lines with the public. Support for depression and substance abuse has led to on-site employee assistance representatives and 24/7 hotlines.
In the past few years, Anderson’s team has created several wellness programs that target specific health needs of American Airlines employees. The Staywell RX program offers free generic medication for diabetes and high blood pressure for adherence to the medication and regular visits to a doctor. When American Airlines went entirely smoke-free, it created the Knock Out Nicotine program to support employees. It provides free cessation medications and nicotine replacement therapies, as well as specialists on call for support.
Employees can also receive health coaching and talk to nutritionists directly through the ten-week online program Naturally Slim and WebMD portal. “We’ve had almost sixteen thousand people in the past two years enroll,” Anderson says. “The response has been phenomenal not only in participation, but also in results. We recently calculated that all the pounds employees have lost could fill up one of our AirBus aircraft.”
All of these initiatives are not going unnoticed by Anderson’s peers, who share her same enthusiasm for healthcare. “Finding ways to control healthcare costs while promoting healthy work environments and encouraging employees to live healthier lifestyles is the underpinning of what we do,” says Trent Riley, chief operating officer at Premise Health. “We are thrilled to be part of the delivery of this meaningful employee benefit, and are proud to see Mary and the team at American Airlines recognized for implementing on-site programs that deliver true value to employees.”
Anderson adds that her team also focuses on the local level because “health populations are vastly different in Oklahoma and Florida than in Texas.” Healthcare delivery systems also vary by state, and communicating a cohesive wellness strategy has been one of the major challenges, especially when 90 percent of employees are unionized. Her team produced an online wellness portal this past September and a mobile app to continue to unite all of the health services offered at American Airlines in one place. “We want our employees to be a co-owner in their health, and we have to give them the tools to do that,” she says.
In the future, Anderson envisions a more concierge-like service for corporate care. The future of her own career is also shifting since her retirement. In the years ahead, she aims to continue developing healthcare programs at nonprofits and small companies, as well as consulting directly with low-income individuals in need of affordable options. “There’s a pandemic of unhealth in this country,” she says. “I’ve always been fairly healthy, but now it’s a crusade.”
Photo: American Airlines
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