In my 13 years as Wellness Programs Manager at Alliance Data, a leading provider of marketing, loyalty and credit solutions, I led the 31 onsite Wellness Champions at locations across the US, guiding them to implement health, fitness and wellness events at their local offices.
Lisa A Smith
I have been active all my life and was fortunate to have earned a collegiate volleyball scholarship. On a plane trip to a tournament, I read an article in Time magazine about this new field of corporate wellness (this was back in the early 80’s!). After reading that article, I knew I had found my career! I received my BS in Kinesiology and earned AFAA group exercise certification. Over the years, I received other certifications: AALC lifestyle counseling, OEAP workstation ergonomics, NWI Worksite Wellness Specialist and am a WELCOA Faculty Member. Of this training, the Worksite Wellness Specialist training has been essential in working in corporate wellness.
The most successful program I developed was the Wellness Champion network for our US offices. Success with any worksite wellness intervention depends on true engagement of the participants and adoption of healthy habits. Having Wellness Champions enabled us to create a supportive culture to encourage our employees to make healthy choices, with the hope that they would then take lessons learned from seminars, weight management classes or fitness contests and create that environment at home.
Since our Champions are from all across the US, routine support and interaction with them was critical. In addition to quarterly conference calls and webinars, I held annual training conferences, bringing the Champions to Headquarters for a three-day intensive. We would review aggregate health risk information at a location level to better understand their population and observe trends; we informed them of upcoming global wellness events such as challenges, biometric screenings and flu shots; we reviewed best practices in onsite wellness programming; we created teams for breakout sessions to develop and share new programming ideas to implement at their office; we problem-solved challenges they faced regarding participation and time constraints to create local programming. We also had a lot of fun developing relationships!
I created an online ToolKit resource that they could utilize to upload program ideas, flyers, bulletin board and newsletter ideas, etc. to make their volunteer role of Wellness Champion easier to facilitate. Additionally, I was able to develop a small budget for each of the locations to use to cater meetings and events, incentive prizes for contests or even for small fitness equipment such as bands, weights and fit balls for the employees to use during their breaks.
There are several outcomes of our network worth mentioning. Many of the locations have improved vending machine selections because the Champion facilitated meetings with their vendor to request healthier selections. Similarly, the President of a large division of the company supported a pilot project in the cafeteria at one of their larger offices where they priced healthy items lower and unhealthy selections higher. The result of the pilot was so impactful, they are redesigning all cafeterias in that division according to this pilot. Many of the unhealthy “traditional” items such as pizza, certain fried foods and large fountain drinks have been eliminated from the menu altogether. Recognition awards and department meetings now are typically catered with healthy food options: cupcakes, cookies and pizza are slowly being replaced with yogurt parfaits, fresh fruit and green salads.
Twenty of the larger locations offered a total of 115 health and fitness events at a local level last year – anything from a walking challenge, to a stair climbing contest, to healthy pot-luck events, to partnerships with local CSAs for weekly delivery of produce. Approximately 18 of the offices offer some type of onsite exercise classes such as yoga, boot camp and Zumba based on surveys administered by the Champions, and many of the Champions have encouraged walking meetings with routes designated inside and outside of the office.
I demonstrate a healthy lifestyle by maintain a healthy body weight, exercising five times a week, participating in biometric screenings, and taking the stairs at the office (inviting others to join!). By teaching weight management classes, I show employees that small, achievable steps can lead to a lifetime of health. My snack demos provide healthy and tasty snacks with recipes that employees can try at home.
One of the most significant experiences establishing me as a leader in the industry was being on the wellness team awarded the C. Everett Koop Award in 2009. We led breakout workshops that year at HERO to discuss our program, networking with other wellness professionals, sharing our successes and challenges.
My concern with wellness programming is that the design is highly competitive or recognizes only the “best of the best”. While there’s something to be said about friendly competition, the workplace is competitive enough, and most of the employees we want to reach will most likely not be the top achievers, so we risk alienating these employees from participating in our events, whether they are exercise classes or biometric screenings.
I encourage our Champions to create programming that supports setting realistic goals, identifies a few small changes participants can adopt, or encourages teamwork to complete the contest and then recognize all individuals who participated. This creates an environment of “we’re all in this together” and builds an atmosphere of support in making healthy choices. In a world that glorifies a “biggest loser” mentality, our employees have shared this has been a refreshing and innovative way to encourage behavior change.
We as health professionals have an extraordinary opportunity to improve the health of individuals in the workplace. However, if we don’t encourage employers to improve the workplace culture, our programs and incentives won’t make a difference. This is what I plan to focus on to advance the direction of the industry.
Employees need to take responsibility for their health, absolutely. But the work environment can help make or break someone's success. Vending machines and cafeterias with healthy, affordable food choices; walking routes at the office; financial planners providing seminars on reducing financial stress; dieticians providing cooking demos to show it’s easy to cook healthy on a budget; promoting the counseling services available through the EAP – these are just a few options that we can encourage employers to implement to create supportive environments. Once the employees see and trust that commitment, we’ll really see true engagement in our wellness interventions.