Current Company: Milwaukee Public Schools
Job Title: Employee Wellness Coordinator
Industry Type: Education
Years in the Field: 4
Organization Size: 10,000 employees
I received my B.A. in Health Promotion in 2010 from the University of Iowa. In 2013, I shifted my career focus from health education to employee wellness. I pursued a certificate as a Corporate Wellness Coach through the Spencer Institute in 2013. This nomination is actually my first formal recognition within the field of employee wellness and I consider this to be quite an honor! I have always seen an opportunity to positively impact the lives of employees through wellness, so I don’t believe I ever “decided” on wellness; instead, I believe it was my calling. My B.A. in Health Promotion has been the most valuable. So much of this field was still unchartered territory in 2010, so I wasn’t taught “how” to promote wellness, but rather how to think about wellness.
My most successful intervention addressed morale. The year of 2014 brought about big change for wellness at MPS. We disbanded our old program and built a new strategy by scratch. The program we held prior to 2014 caused significant distrust between MPS employees and the employee wellness program (Department of Benefits). Employees would call to file grievances and appeals concerning the “old” wellness program. They claimed it was ineffective and invasive. It was clear that morale was poor.
I knew that in order to build a successful program for the future, I needed to gain back the employees trust, so I started listening. My intervention became simply to terminate the old wellness program. We ended our contract with the vendor and we began communicating to staff that “new employee wellness programs were coming soon.” I could actually feel a staff-wide sigh of relief. For the first time, I started getting phone calls from employees with ideas, enthusiasm, and gratitude. I knew we were off to a very positive start. I consider the dismantling of our old program my most successful intervention so far because it helped us rebuild trust and set a strong foundation for future success. This intervention undoubtedly addressed our employee morale.
In the old program, we spent the entire wellness budget each year while our healthcare costs remained above average. Terminating the program saved our district approximately half of our total budget right away. Once the initial wellness program was undone, we began designing a new strategy. Our new strategy continues to save us approximately half of our allotted budget per year.
Our old program required no behavior change of our employees, so the termination of that program did not automatically trigger behavior change either. Our employees were happier, but they weren’t necessarily behaving any different – yet. One of our first new initiatives is a gym membership reimbursement program. Just in the first month, we’ve had over 10% of our employees sign up, which is more than the 7% that completed the previous program on an annual basis.
Culture change was really where we felt the biggest outcome. We believe that participation is an accurate assessment of positive culture change, so our primary goal for the first year of the wellness program is to increase participation in wellness programming. The first initiative in our new strategy has already surpassed past years total participation in just the first month. The data will show what we can feel, which is that things at MPS are improving.
The development of our new strategy has definitely benefited from the 7 benchmarks. Our district’s new Superintendent Dr. Driver is an advocate for wellness and was excited to support our initiative. She even included, “…the health and wellness of our employees…” in her revised vision statement for the district. We created a wellness team comprised of employee population representatives (union reps) and other key figures from Communications, Research & Evaluation, Health Benefits, etc. We used the last of our data from the old wellness program to justify our new strategy: a holistic wellness program that was voluntary and not tied directly to the employee’s health insurance costs. We crafted an operating plan that laid out a clear mission and vision, along with goals, objectives, budget projections, etc. Lastly, I sought out policy information for benchmark 6. Although we have not made any changes to policies yet, I do plan to strengthen and improve them where necessary in the coming two years. We will pursue data (benchmark 7) as it becomes more readily available.
Part of my role is to be the “face” of wellness at MPS, so I walk the talk by relating to our employees! I am healthy, but not perfect. I plan to share personal stories and struggles through Twitter and our employee intranet, mConnect, so that our employees can see that I am their biggest advocate.
I believe I stand out as a leader in my field because I have a significant work experience in a short period of time, mixed with a sincere passion for wellness and desire to prove myself. The best resource I’ve had has always been good leadership. All of my bosses have been outstanding sources of support and confidence. They have believed in me and let me grow, which has been vital to my success.
My biggest piece of advice would be to be happy in your role. We don’t go to work and work, we get to brainstorm how to help people and how to make life better. That’s a blessing.
Right now, the field of wellness is transitioning. We’re moving away from health risk assessments and biometric screens and toward a holistic perspective that puts our employees first and our pocketbooks second. This is the right move and I am contributing to this advancement in our industry by implementing this progressive model at my workplace. Being at the forefront of this new model is what I’m doing differently, and so far, the outcome has been fantastic. We are seeing higher participation, which we believe will yield high cost savings. We are also utilizing program partners that are cost effective. Our employees are feeling energized and excited to have a program that they know was genuinely built for them. Both the behavior change and the culture change are evident in our higher rates of participation. We hope to serve as an example that doing the right thing for our employees is also the right thing for our organization as a whole.
Wellness is not going away, so overall I would say that my vision for our future is bright. Wellness always faces the threat of being viewed as a luxury and not necessary, but I think that the future will prove that wellness is right. The millennial generation will take hold as leaders in the workplace and we will see policy change lean toward wellness i.e. flexible work hours. Millennials are a generation that inherently holistunderstands wellness, so we will see this initiative transition into a true culture, nationwide. We will have the opportunity to redefine the work-life relationship and I believe that the current influence of wellness will help things progress in the right direction. In the next five years, I plan to be pursuing higher education that will eventually allow me to achieve a role as a professor in health promotion.