Making progress on a new employee wellness program

Think employee wellness initiatives are only about diet and exercise? Think again. Employee wellness should go beyond broccoli and jogging, according to Stephanie Downs, Iowa State's wellness coordinator.

University human resources hired Downs seven months ago and charged her with the task of broadening and strengthening Iowa State's employee wellness program. She gave an update on her progress at a Dec. 9 Professional and Scientific Council seminar.

In the process of gathering data from university surveys, employee groups and outside resources over the past several months, Downs said Iowa State's employee wellness efforts should focus on an individual's entire well-being, not just physical health.

"I hope this concept of well-being will bring a paradigm shift to the university," Downs said. "It's about a cultural change. It's about how we value and support employees. The manifestation of physical issues is often related to issues you can't touch, such as stress and mental wellness."

A culture of well-being

Downs discussed five aspects of well-being on which Iowa State's future employee wellness program will be built.

Physical: Exercise, nutrition, proper sleep habits, good hygiene and preventive health care. Downs noted that the top three health claims at Iowa State are related to bones, muscles and ligaments; cancers and tumors; and routine care.

Social/emotional: Human dynamics, relationships with coworkers, feeling cared about. Downs said stress impacts this aspect of well-being. She cited medical studies that conclude more than 70 percent of diseases are related to stress, and that stress can inhibit a person's ability to think clearly.

Financial: Effectively managing your economic life, financial security and satisfaction with your standard of living. Downs said this aspect of well-being is not about making more money, but rather managing the money you make.

Community: Feeling safe and secure, giving back, having pride in where you work and live. Citing the 2011 university life survey, Downs said that almost 93 percent of employees think ISU has an attractive campus.

Career/Purpose: Having a purpose in life, enjoying workdays as much as weekends. According to the 2013 benefits survey, 79 percent of employees think Iowa State is a great place to work, and 74 percent were satisfied with their career.

Through her research over the past several months, Downs said she learned that employees enjoy working at Iowa State and that there are several wellness programs and services available. But, she said, there's room for improvement. Following are some of the common improvement themes she's heard during conversations with employees groups:

  • Enhance communication about wellness and well-being
  • Create ways to give all employees access to programs and services
  • Promote a variety of wellness choices and motivate employees to participate
  • Build the concept of well-being into ISU's culture
  • Expand current programs and services to include all aspects of well-being

Next steps

By the end of December, Downs will wrap up her data collection on the university's current wellness programs and talk with Wellmark about Iowa State's health claims. In January 2015, she will compile an action plan for the university's wellness program, including branding, infrastructure, resources and priorities. She will develop a communications plan by March. By late spring, Downs will establish volunteer employee wellness teams to help communicate initiatives in departments and units.

"We have opportunities to improve," Downs said. "We want to go from good to great."