Building Wellness Programs That Work

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By Megan M. Krischke, contributor

January 18, 2012 - When it comes to being a great place to work, Scripps Health in California has the credentials; in 2011, it ranked 37 on FORTUNE’s list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For, and in an annual survey, Scripps employees often mention the wellness program as a benefit they appreciate about their workplace. Another leading medical center, Ohio’s Cleveland Clinic (the Clinic), has experienced a number of successes with their employee wellness program including a 2011 Healthy Living Innovation award from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for their Shape Up & Go program.  Additionally, Clinic employees have lost 270,450 pounds since August 2008 through wellness program offerings.

Both employers have developed best practices for creating and sustaining wellness programs that are truly a benefit--for employees and the organization.

Employee Wellness Program
Hamilton Mears, PT, MTC, FABC encourages employers and nurses to see nurses as athletes who can only do their job as well as their physical and psychological health allows.

Hamilton Mears, PT, FABC, wellness plan administrator at Scripps, credits the success of its program to having a clear measure of employee needs coupled with strategic communication efforts.

“I would say a first step for any employee wellness program is to offer free biometric screenings and health risk assessments,” he suggested. “It is very important to be able to measure health status from the get-go, because you use that information to design an effective program and to link the benefits of the program to financial impact. On an individual level, it creates a teachable moment when an employee is staring at a piece of paper that defines their health status pretty clearly. In that moment, people are very open to motivation to make changes.”

Scripps uses a variety of methods to communicate to employees about the wellness program, including face-to-face, electronic and print media. One of their most effective methods is the result of actively recruiting wellness program champions from within the organization.

“One of the hardest things about starting a wellness program is how to effectively communicate its offerings and benefits to employees. Not only does it have to have visible support from leaders--there has to be a grassroots element,” explained Mears. “Finding natural champions who will help promote your program by word of mouth to their friends is key. Champions should be respected by their peers and be the type people others will seek out for information. Through a one hour phone conversation each month we make sure our champions understand the program, are engaged with our goals and can offer feedback.”

Following the lead of its CEO, Delos "Toby" Cosgrove, M.D., the Clinic has sought to create a culture of wellness. Examples of this culture shift include banning trans fats and sugar-sweetened beverages from its menus and moving from designating the entire system smoke-free to no longer hiring smokers.

“In our experience, the key elements of a successful wellness program include removing the cost barrier for employees and offering multiple program options,” commented Patricia Zirm, BSN, RN, MPH, senior director of the employee health plan for the Cleveland Clinic. “Our programs include a chronic disease management program, memberships to Cleveland Clinic fitness centers, memberships to Curves facilities and its weight management program, Weight Watchers, a tobacco cessation program, a walking program and a voluntary rebate program.”

If a facility does not have the labor resources to dedicate toward starting a wellness program, Mears suggests using a vendor that offers wellness services online. These vendors help design and administer your program. The easy, anytime-accessibility of online resources is often useful to nurses who work irregular hours.

“Considering you will likely receive a positive return on your investment in just a few years without much labor involved makes these programs a good investment,” he added. “Two of our more popular programs are chair massages and cooking classes that focus on how to prepare dishes that are healthy and delicious.”

“Even though making changes in your cafeteria may seem like a major expense, there are small, inexpensive steps that can be taken,” Mears stated. “For instance, placing healthy foods in locations where they are easy to see and access and placing unhealthy food where it isn’t the first thing that meets the eye.”

“In our experience, physical activity services are the most beneficial. Once employees begin exercising, they start to lose weight and feel better, making continued participation more likely,” offered Zirm. “Walking challenges are an easy way to begin focusing on wellness. Give employees a pedometer and challenge them to reach a predetermined number of steps each day. At the Clinic we challenge our employees to reach 10,000 steps a day. Have employees track their steps and reward those who meet the goals.”

“This concept can be expanded to department challenges,” Zirm continued. “Individual departments can compete against each other in terms of steps walked, minutes exercised or weight lost over a predetermined period of time. Having a team approach helps keep employees focused on their goals and encourages continued participation.”

“What has to be in place for the success of an employee wellness program is a way to measure the health status of employees and a method for intervening in major health risks,” remarked Mears. “The pillars of good health are nutrition, exercise, preventive exams, stress-management and life-balance. These elements should be central to your offerings. There are sound ways to address all those elements. The real trick is how do you frame them in a way that is palatable and enticing to your particular work culture?”

“Remember any kind of change is difficult, and whatever incentives are attached to a program may not be appreciated by your employees. The key is clear communication regarding the reason or mission of your program,” concluded Zirm.


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