Does workplace wellness work?

6/30/2017  By HealthNews

June 30, 2017

"TeamKVH" employees at last year's Tunnel To Towers event. (Photo by Brandis Van Iterson)

Last week, people from all over the country converged on St. Paul, Minnesota to take part in the 42nd annual National Wellness Conference.

Forty two years?! Has "wellness" really been around that long?

The short answer: yes.

Conference host the National Wellness Institute was founded in 1977. The institute provides "resources and services that fuel professional and personal growth" to wellness professionals. The non-profit organization bases its work on an interdependent model called "The Six Dimensions of Wellness" - emotional, occupational, physical, social, intellectual, and spiritual.

This goes against the stereotype of wellness as just a glorified term for physical fitness. And if you look closely at most workplace wellness programs, you'll find more than a focus on diet and exercise.

Your mental and physical health depends on wellness. -Melany Peterson

Local workplace wellness
Once considered a "growing trend," wellness programs can now be found in companies of all types and sizes across the U.S. In Kittitas County, a number of health-minded businesses have programs shaped to fit their unique culture and employee needs.

When top employer* Central Washington University launched a pilot employee wellness program, they used a combination of nutritionist-led group meetings and individual incentives such as Fitbit wearables. The program was limited to 25 employees. "We wanted to see what worked on a smaller scale before rolling something out to all our staff," says Melany Peterson, CWU Benefits Coordinator.

Beyond the pilot, CWU extended wellness incentives to all staff with a subsidy for using the student rec center (SURC) during wellness hours (6 - 8 a.m. and Noon - 2 p.m.).

A component of the KVH wellness program includes "virtual walking treks" to places all over the world. Photo: Members of the KVH 2 Million Step Club.

Workplace wellness has been part of the employee culture at Kittitas Valley Healthcare for many years. Like CWU, recent efforts at KVH include a pilot series which began in mid-2014. Groups were limited to 40. Called Fit2Care, the program name and motto reflected KVH's commitment to patient care: "Taking care of our health first helps us care for others." The series ran through the end of 2015, giving the organization over a year of data and feedback on what was valuable and what could be improved.

Today, much of the KVH wellness program is individual-centric, including trackable activities like step counting which have become the new norm for personal fitness. KVH encourages staff to "do wellness" together in everything from daily walks to community 10Ks, and participants are often reimbursed for fitness event registration fees.

For those who are engaged, the approach seems to be working: a virtual record of steps taken since the latest program launched last winter shows 25 staff who have hit the one million step mark. Four employees have achieved two million step status.

Both Central and KVH have made good use of the pilot program model for workplace wellness. This should be an encouragement to those who are considering starting their own programs: while it's not a one size fits all situation, there are common components and basic needs that make up all successful wellness programs - and you can experiment on a smaller scale before making things official.

Is it worth the effort?
Like any initiative, wellness programs will be embraced by those who are already interested and enthusiastic about their own wellness. These people don't necessarily need a wellness program, but they are your biggest supporters and are often successful in bringing others with them into the fold. Consider them your not-so-secret allies.

On the flip side, wellness programs are time consuming to manage, and can be costly for employers, depending on program components and whether services are free. Outside of Amazon and Google, you'll be hard-pressed to find program managers who do nothing but oversee and implement employee wellness initiatives.

When asked for the top challenge of managing a wellness program, Peterson doesn't hesitate: "Getting people to participate." Even with a small pilot program, wellness participants often need motivation. Yet Peterson sees positive trends, as well: increased education about health issues has led more people to take steps toward healthier lifestyles.

The bottom line for Peterson? Wellness is important. It can take considerable work to shape a program that meets employee needs, but in the end, she feels it's worth it. "You just have to find what works to get folks motivated. And with support from leadership, a passion for education, and employees who are ready to take charge of their health, there's nothing to stop workplace wellness from being a lasting success."

TIP: No wellness program where you work? You don't have to start from scratch. Check with your health insurance provider: most have wellness incentives for their members, and it can be a great place to begin building a workplace wellness culture.

*Top employers: Central Washington University and Kittitas Valley Healthcare are the first and second largest employers in Kittitas County, respectively.