ENTRY FROM: The Top 100 Health Promotion Professionals

Nominee: Mike Perko

Be Bigger Than Yourself - Wellness Inspiration

Nothing says wellness like the smell of bacon wafting from the back of the room while giving your first wellness training. Twenty years ago it was not uncommon to be handed a sausage biscuit at the front door at the first company I worked with, and spent the next eight hours invested in how we move forward with their wellness plan. Gladly things have changed. Now, as the wellness advisor at the National Rural Electric Cooperatives, Inc. (NRECA), the national service organization for more than 900 not-for-profit rural electric cooperatives and public power districts providing retail electric service to more than 42 million consumers in 47 states, I am amazed at the way they approach wellness. Since 1999, I have had the pleasure of training over 2000 NRECA Benefits Administrators in the WELCOA 7 benchmarks, which I believe to be the standard for all worksite wellness programs. Along the way they got serious about healthy lifestyles and embraced a culture rooted in the rural values they espouse – hard work, a strong sense of community, and giving back in the spirit of well-being.

Be Bigger Than Yourself

In 2012 the decision was made that rather than a pre-conference workshop, our wellness effort would be volunteering in the community of the city in which our yearly conferences were held. Over 60 wellness volunteers spent the day painting, cleaning and beatifying Abraham Lincoln's Cottage, his retreat from DC city life while he was President. We also spent time with residents of one of only two US Armed Forces Retirement Homes in the US, it's campus of which borders Lincolns Cottage. This is truly a representation of NRECA's wellness motto - Be Bigger than Yourself.

Professional Development

I have a strong background in Health Education, including both a Bachelor’s in Physical Education and Health and Masters in Community Health (East Stroudsburg University), and a PhD in Health Education/Promotion from the University of Alabama.  During my PhD I served as Associate Director of both Alabama Power and Florida’s Gulf Power Companies Worksite Wellness Programs, meeting the needs of over 16000 employees for 6 years.  Today I feel the same passion and drive I felt 20 years ago and thank mentor Jim Eddy for his grounding me in worksite health promotion principles.

Demonstrated Success

How do you move a wellness initiative forward when you have 70,000 employees spread out over 47 states?  I will provide 3 ways in which NRECA demonstrated success.

One of the biggest challenges was centralizing the wellness message – NRECA did not have boots on the ground health educators at any of its 905 coops, but what they did have was an army of enthusiastic Benefits Administrators (BA’s) identified as the “wellness” people.  Each year for ten years, one major effort was a pre-conference wellness workshop at all three summer Benefits Update Conferences (BUC’s) that were either eight or four hours long.  The trainings were divided into Beginner and Intermediate workshops; Beginner focused on the WELCOA 7 Benchmarks and introduced a timeline for the participating Co-op BA’s to become results-based, and Intermediate focused on timely topics based on need and BA input from prior BUC’s.  I led each of those and still do.  Over the years as wellness has gained ground, attendance at these workshops went from 17-18 BA’s to over 80 BA’s per session.  Evaluation of the sessions showed a high level of comfort and understanding of the materials presented and a willingness to take the education back to their coops. 

The second effort was a slow but steady transformation of corporate culture in which participating coops saw a photograph of the CEO of NRECA on the inside front cover of the wellness brochure – this was no small task; since then the new CEO has taken the helm and within the first few months on the job made a wellness video showing her support from the top down for wellness.  The VP’s have also done yeoman’s work to get wellness on the dais at the big general sessions as well as having wellness be the focus of the closing sessions at the last 3 yearly conferences.

Third, the development of two in-house products; one on eating smarter and the other on moving more, were made available to coops to serve as tool kits for the wellness trained BA’s.  The eating smart program was initiated over a 2 year period with a pre and post surveys to document impact.  Results showed that of 3,821 employees from over 100 coops who completed the 4 part program, 76% tried to eat more fruits and vegetables, 70% tried to eat more whole grains, 58% tried to exercise more, 56% tried to choose more healthful options when eating out, and 48% tried to pack a healthier lunch.  These results were consistent with what I saw; employees actively thinking and acting on being healthier.  Along with stressing the importance of healthy foods at meetings instead of the typical donuts and bagels, the change in attitudes and efforts to be healthier is transformative.  The Move Smart program is being tested currently. 

These and other initiatives have resonated with NRECA employees – they are walking more, eating better, and feeling inspired. 


I know I am seen as the “wellness guy” at NRECA – therefore I am always present for 6am roll call for the daily wellness walks during conference weeks; in Chicago this year we had 107 walkers on one of the days!  It’s tough not to live a healthy lifestyle when at an NRECA function as the overall leadership has committed to serving healthy foods at each meal and breaks.  We encourage standing during meetings and sessions and hundreds took part in the Fitbit walking challenge at our last 3 conferences.  Truly though, leadership is shared – while I am officially the wellness advisor, the I&FS team, responsible for managing the benefits and the vision for wellness, have all linked arms and marched to the idea that wellness at NRECA is not what we do to people, it’s what we do with people.  The VP’s that I work with have committed to looking beyond the ledger to the value that wellness brings to the company and its people.


We pulled together NRECA’s greatest strength greatest as our innovation; the ability to inspire.  In a culture that has as one of its seven guiding principles “Concern for Community”, NRECA’s Storm Soldiers, as they are called, brave the elements in all seasons to bring power to over 47 million Americans.  So three years ago, I suggested that wellness efforts begin to focus on the use of inspiration rather than just motivation to be healthier.  This has led to 3 community outreach efforts as pre-conference events that have inspiration and volunteerism as its onus – the cleaning of Lincoln’s Cottage and visiting of retired soldiers at the Military Retirement Home in Washington DC, landscaping at the Miami Zoo, and clearing brush in a nature preserve in Chicago that borders a residential mental health facility.  Each one of these events was branded as a “Be Bigger than Yourself” experience and included over 200 hundred people contributing their time and effort.  Wellness is now seen as a reason to give back and reap the benefits of sweat equity and community engagement.

Compelling Vision

After the great awakening in worksite wellness in the late 1990’s, that being that programs needed to show outcomes-based evidence, a notion began to form around the idea that ROI was the (only) yardstick of a successful program.  This led to disastrous conversations between decisions makers and worksite professionals that omitted this very important truth – that well planned and executed worksite programs are done for people, not health and medical conditions, and that a side effect of good programs is a positive ROI.  In the future, we need to insist on the message that the worksite wellness focus be on the employee and creating the environment where making a healthy decision is made by default, and not on the heart attack they may or may not have.  I feel strongly that emerging professionals don’t have a clear notion of how they fit in the current worksite landscape; a study I am doing with one of the biggest social media platforms could provide some insights on how they can quickly apply their strengths. 

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mike p.
I got my start in worksite wellness the old fashioned way; playing Vince the Crash Test Dummy at 3 am health and safety meetings. Since then I have worked alongside giants in the field as both Associate Director, Director and now Chief Wellness Adviser to some great companies. As both an Associate Professor of Public Health Education at the University of North Carolina Greensboro and wellness advisor to the 70,000 member National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, I get to talk the talk in the classroom, walk the walk in the field, and enjoy the success of employees getting healthier! View mike p.'s Profile.
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Excellent snappy lead! I remember my first presentation at a company with a huge lineup of vending machines behind me. Many a great story in corporate wellness. Thanks for sharing!

Michelle W. on 11/24/2014

You made me smile. I have a bacon story myself. Good luck!

Tracie M. on 10/22/2014

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