WNC employers create healthy workplace options

WALKING THE WALK: Ellen Stallings, left, community wellness educator at Park Ridge Health, and Katherine Schuen, wellness manager, walk a trail together during a 15-minute wellness break at work. Photo courtesy of Hal Alexander of Park Ridge Health

Workplace health initiatives are cropping up in Western North Carolina. Large hospital systems such as Mission Health and Park Ridge, as well as business owners and organizations like the Western North Carolina Medical Society, are starting to think “inside” the box: They’re creating in-house wellness programs that help employees lose weight, lower stress, get more exercise and eat healthier.

Mission is the region’s largest employer, and its WellConnect engagement specialist Dede Rowe helps foster health inside the workplace. “We have an online wellness program tool that we allow all of our employees to have access to and insert data [into],” Rowe says.

The online, interactive weight-loss and fitness challenge achieved about 50 percent participation, she continues. The program hosts workshops, TED talks and quizzes that grant points to participating staff, Rowe explains. At the end of each three-month period, participants who reach their goals earn $75. “We focus on trying to build morale. It is [also] building a culture of wellness and providing support, whether that is [for] weight loss or getting active.”

Zumba and turbo kickboxing are favorites for Jerri Jameson, Mission’s senior communications consultant. “I [have] met fellow employees that I would never have met in my day-to-day job, and we created a bond.”

In partnership with Mission’s WellConnect program, YMCA of WNC instructors offer 23 classes free to enrolled employees. Classes are offered in the early morning, during lunch or early evening.

“As a health care facility, we want to be taking care of [our] community,” Rowe says. “We have over 13,000 employees, and we wanted to put forth our effort and resources to focus on community to turn around illness at work. We now offer this program to other employers in the Asheville area.”

A few times each quarter, WellConnect specialists visit local companies and answer questions about the online fitness challenge. The program also offers cooking demonstrations provided by YMCA’s healthy kitchen bus.

“We make it as affordable as possible,” says Rowe. Fees range from $4.50 per month for employees of Chamber of Commerce companies to $5 per month for others, she explains. The online tool and support help employees develop their own wellness program, says Rowe. “And we help them to develop programming such as a Couch to 5K Club, the WellConnect … weight loss and fitness challenge, and anything else they might need.”

WellConnect engages in a two-year contract with participating companies, Rowe explains. In the first year, the program builds enrollment and explores what companies already have available to help employees. By the second year, employees can evaluate their progress and gather data on what areas need focus, such as stress, body mass index and blood pressure, and what interventions need to be launched, says Rowe.

Mission offers follow-up support too. Mission representatives host group “Lunch and Learns” that address such health topics as stress and provide a healthy, balanced meal for $4, Rowe says. “We build on the program, depending on where companies want to go,” she says. Following a community resiliency model, the program offers health fairs for cholesterol, glucose, height, weight and BMI, Rowe continues. Employers get verified but anonymous data that help them evaluate how the program is impacting employee health.

There’s a big payoff for implementing a wellness program in the workplace, says Katherine Schuen, wellness manager at Park Ridge Health. The Henderson County hospital — which is part of the Adventist Health System — has received the Excellence Recognition Award from the N.C. Prevention Partners for the past two years. Scores are given for such aspects as nutrition, tobacco, physical activities and overall wellness culture.

Park Ridge has a variety of employees with a variety of needs, says Schuen. “You have the night shift, day shift, desk job, older nurses, etc.,” she says. “We make sure our programming is unique.”

Fit for Life — a chronic disease prevention and reversal program — launched in January for Park Ridge employees whose BMI was greater than 30 and who demonstrated more than two risk factors, such as high blood pressure, obesity or diabetes, says Schuen. Participating employees get a free one-on-one relationship with wellness counselors who help monitor and encourage healthy meals, exercise and behavioral management.

The program has helped each employee achieve an 80 percent drop in one risk factor, she says. “Using exercise, many of our participating employees have reduced their high blood pressure to manageable and/or medication-free levels,” Schuen adds.

“I was not exercising or eating healthy,” says one Park Ridge employee, who asked to remain anonymous. “In December, I had my blood work completed, and my total cholesterol was 280.”

A physician’s assistant suggested medication and told the employee to change diets, lose 40 pounds and get the cholesterol down to 220.

“I knew medication was not going to be the best option for me, so I took it as a challenge to make some personal changes in my lifestyle,” the employee says. “I started the Fit for Life program through the [Park Ridge] wellness department and have lowered my cholesterol 62 points, lost 26 pounds of fat, [and improved] my fitness level.

“I do not need cholesterol medication, and now I am training for a half-marathon with a friend. I feel better and I am medication-free.”

Another part of the Fit for Life program, says Schuen, is the Fitbit Launch, which offers employees and their families one of the devices at a fraction of the cost. Since its inception in April, 64 percent of employees have signed up. Some employees have created fun group challenges, she adds, by using their Fitbits to calculate simulated Appalachian Trail hikes or Alaska biking, walking or running adventures.

“Nutrition is a big component at Park Ridge,” says Schuen. “We network with the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project as the local distributor, and we try to ensure that there is always healthy local fruit or vegetables year-round on trays.”

Park Ridge also created the Stoplight Program, in which nutritionists help employees identify what foods are healthy. “Everything is noted on the menu, which helps employees receive more information to make choices,” says Schuen. “We recently conducted research in regards to the community nutrition, and the conclusion is that people are desiring healthier choices when given info and education.”

The Western Carolina Medical Society has also undertaken health initiatives for employees but has faced challenges in the process. “We are very small nonprofit with a fairly tight budget,” says CEO Miriam Schwarz. “We have 14 employees, so we have to use resources very carefully to craft wellness programs that are going to be low- or no-cost.”

Schwarz notes, “I expect a lot from people, but I try to make them not burn out. [The] cost of turnover is tremendous, and workplace culture, I think, has a lot to do with retention.”

So the nonprofit looks at “both mental and physical wellness in the workplace,” she says. Employees are encouraged to walk daily, for example. “They keep track of the number of days they walk, and we have a threshold in order to be recognized and rewarded [with] a half day off from work.”

The reward, though small compared with some larger corporations, Schwarz adds, is one of the key factors motivating employees to exercise and work together to meet goals.

Echoing the sentiment expressed by both Rowe and Schuen, she adds, “We strive for psychological wellness in our workplace. I want to be able to create a work environment we all want to work in.”

More Info

Mission Health: WellConnect

www.mission-health.org/wellconnect-wellness-program.php  or 213-3589

Park Ridge Wellness
www.parkridgehealth.org or 650-8117

Western Carolina Medical Society



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