ENTRY FROM: The Top 100 Health Promotion Professionals

Nominee: Tanya Barham

Not just wellness, but a better way to work.

Tanya Barham is an experienced manager and entrepreneur. Wellness had always been important to her personally, but from a business operations perspective she was not a fan of the anecdotal, kumbaya approach that she felt too many companies took when it came to implementing effectively.

Barham applied her organizational change experience to “wellness” and Recess was born. Over nearly a decade Barham and the Recess team created a standardized, predictable methodology for promoting organizational behaviors that drive measurable health improvements.

Employee Led Wellness

This is one example of a single communication piece developed by an employee wellness team through the Eight-Week Facilitation Methodology. This campaign featured 7 such videos all of which covered various aspects of medical consumerism and self-care. Each video was written by and starred wellness team members or other County employees. The wellness team called down 70% of County managers and had them show these videos in staff meetings - reaching nearly all County employees in the process. This is but one example of how the process builds a sense of ownership as well as implements programs using teams.

Professional Development

Tanya graduated from the University of Minnesota with a B.A. in International Relations and a focus on technical programs.  She joined the workforce immediately: managing renewable energy and conservation programs.   The industry exploded.  Tanya watched good people lose spark.  Inspired by the short film “More” and her yoga practice Tanya resolved to put her business skills to good use: moving organizations toward a more humane way to work.

While she believes passionately in the value of education, 10 years as an entrepreneur and a voracious appetite for learning have been more personally valuable to Tanya than an MBA or MPH.

Demonstrated Success

Through Recess, Tanya established a credible, reliable process framework for implementing the intangible work of health promotion. She led and trained staff to learn and implement this process, resulting in clients consistently scoring in the top 15% of the Health Enhancement Research Organization national benchmark.  Tanya has personally led more than 150 health promotion campaigns in a highly diverse sample of organizations ranging in size from 194-107,000 employees.

In March 2013, Multnomah County asked Barham to serve as the wellness manager and cultural change agent for the 12,000 individuals on their health plans. For more than a decade prior, the County’s wellness program offered everything from health risk assessments to coaching to fitness centers and mental health services; however, participation County-wide never exceeded 5 % of the total workforce.  Often it was closer to 1%.  Given the comparatively few resources for wellness that the County had, Barham was tasked with turning around a work culture without the benefit of big incentives.

Instead, she applied the cultural change process she and her team created at Recess. By October of 2013, over one third of County employees were engaging in wellness programming. Wellness’s Web had the highest search engine rankings of any County intranet page other than the main landing page: increasing from 3,073 page views in 2012 to 79,450 (and growing) page views in 2013. 

Barham also used strategic, tactical, and facilitative leadership to mobilize senior leaders and grassroots wellness teams to design, communicate and promote wellness at a County wide level and within departments.  Her methodology includes an annual Four-Phase Project Plan, which: provides a comprehensive framework for garnering leadership support; collecting, analyzing and disseminating data; creating an operational plan; coordinating interventions.  

An important part of that plan is a sub-process called the Eight-Week Facilitation Methodology.  It creates ownership through guiding cross-functional and cross-departmental wellness teams in a variety of organizational best practices related to health promotion.  Over 100 County employees in under two years have participated in this structured wellness team facilitation process, building broad based ownership and transparency  for the organization’s wellness efforts. 

Not only does the Eight-Week Facilitation Methodology introduce wellness teams and senior leaders to operational behaviors and tactics considered best practice by standards such as WELCOA’s 7 Benchmarks, it also sets forth tactical and facilitation guidelines for wellness staff to use. 

In this way dedicated wellness staff step out of the role of an implementer, which is important because one person can only do so much or influence so many.  Instead the process guides wellness staff in coordinating, facilitating, and supporting the wellness teams.  It creates a culture where best practice behavior becomes the norm in employee-led communications and campaigns.  It makes effective use of the energy, intelligence and social capital of a broad based coalition of employees and turns them into champions.

Barham’s participative approach has earned the County two innovation awards through the  American Heart Association and IMPA-HR (this award also came with a grant of $20,000).  


Barham’s motivation in life and work is to embody the qualities she wishes to inspire in those she serves.  This is not a one way process where she provides a good example from which others benefit.  A  love of learning and passion for people means she comes to work with her staff and every employer wellness team hoping also to learn from their uniqueness, creativity and spark.  Leading often means reflecting back to others the greatness she sees in them, challenging them to achieve it, and giving them the right resources to make it so.

Barham also seeks information from other thinkers in her field:  WELLCOA, The HERO, American Journal of Health Promotion, local public health organizations, and epidemiological research.   

She seeks feedback from clients, peers, and direct reports in order to grow professionally and personally.  Getting feedback is the advice she would give to anyone hoping to lead in this field. 


When employers envision wellness, they focus on the results published in studies of best practice wellness programs. With a growing supply of wellness vendors offering products at competitive prices, most employers now have access to high quality wellness products. What they lack are the internal resources and expertise to use such products in a way that drives employee engagement and financial return. 

Tanya used her process and organizational change expertise to create a credible, reliable framework for implementing the intangible work of health promotion.  She didn't want just the lucky employers to succeed - she wanted every employer to succeed in creating a culture of health. 

Outcomes  include: all programs using the process for at least two years score in the top 15% of the HERO benchmark; average participation rates of over 50% of eligible employees in programs with no financial incentives; “personal relevance” listed as more  influential in motivating program participation than incentives; improved satisfaction with work culture based on pre/post surveys; reduced medical trend by 10-26% in self-insured or experience rated health plans.  


 Compelling vision

There is a growing misunderstanding in health promotion.  Namely, that products, portals, and services are not just health promotion tools, but are themselves the solution.  Despite the wide availability of such tools, a recent Fox study showed that Americans today are less happy than 30 years ago.  Books like Bowling Alone have shown that despite how connected we are via technology,  the deep social support communities provide is eroding. 

Barham believes that sustainably healthy behavior change comes through more fundamental habit forming behaviors which are often motivated, reinforced and shaped by the environments and relationships in which we are embedded.  The human brain is wired for influence.  Mirror neurons mean we not only recognize another’s emotions, but can feel them in OUR bodies.  Tanya’s work uses this capacity we all have to spread positive social contagion in our work places and communities through wellness.   

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Walking (and biking) the talk.
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Tanya B.
I create a better way to work through wellness. Having always been a hopeless process geek, I have a list from childhood of my first grade friends, their relative merits and whether or not such merits justified a birthday party invite. After all, there was only so much cake to go around. Wellness was always important to me personally, but from an operations perspective I was not a fan of the anecdotal, kumbaya approach that I felt too many companies used to deploy it. I applied my love for scalable processes that drive cultural change to "wellness" and Recess was born. Recess' Proprietary Implementation Process is also what I used to transform Multnomah County's wellness program. View Tanya B.'s Profile.
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