Sustainability, wellness work together

ISU WellBeing staff look for ways to increase the success and happiness faculty and staff experience in their work. Senior WorkLife and WellBeing coordinator Stephanie Downs finds improving employees' lives often goes hand in hand with sustainability at the university -- and beyond.

Stephanie Downs

Stephanie Downs

"It shows up everywhere from stress management, social connection and decluttering and more," she said. "Realizing how you interact with others, connect with others, the environment you are working in, is critical to the well-being of everyone and everything involved. If we just stay focused on our physical health, we have missed the boat."

ISU WellBeing staff, in partnership with Live Green staff, will make sustainability the primary focus of the Adventure2 program this fall. Motivating people to be mindful of how everyday tasks and decisions impact them can lead to positive results, and individual efforts -- from recycling to the kind of chemicals you use on your lawn -- make a difference, Downs said.

Environmental sustainability

Iowa State is working toward becoming a health promoting university and college and aims to move beyond individual health to promoting a personal and organizational responsibility to the place people work and to the planet.

"We want to get people thinking about the food they eat, the water they drink and the air they breathe," Downs said. "Rethinking our connection to the earth often makes us slow down and think about the impact of our actions now and for future generations."

Recycling and being mindful of resources we use throughout the day can impact what reaches a landfill. How a lunch is packed -- a single-use plastic bag or reusable bag and the choice between plastic or reusable cutlery -- shows how an individual choice can make a difference and reduce our footprint.

ISU WellBeing has championed walking and getting out in nature to reconnect with people and the environment. Living through a pandemic showed the importance of interacting with others and how it helps when dealing with issues like anxiety and depression, Downs said. Strolls for Well-Being, walking meetings and Friday Walk and Talks have health benefits. ISU WellBeing also emphasizes the importance of ergonomics in the workplace to avoid issues. Sit/stand desks are more commonplace, and departments and units have the potential to be more efficient during remote work as employees share space.

Economic sustainability

Downs said the largest drivers of medical costs at ISU are musculoskeletal, cancer, behavioral health, and screenings and exams. Better health is a form of self-sustainability that can decrease health care costs and increase life expectancy.

"Taking care of our physical health is incredibly important, and doing those preventative things has a big impact as we age," she said. "The costs to us individually and as an institution can be quite substantial if we neglect it."

Iowa State has used a self-funded model for employee health and dental care and prescription drug service since 1996. Good health not only lowers medical costs, but increases quality of life as people age. 

Finances also can be a stressor for many, but help is available through financial well-being services and resources at ISU. They help employees plan for retirement, set budgets and focus on spending for memories and experiences rather than things, reducing the strain on earth's resources.

ISU's insurance benefits offer Blue365 discounts to save employees money and assist with medical-related costs. Many vendors ISU partners with (TIAA, IPERS, etc.) provide virtual sessions for financial and retirement planning.

Social sustainability

ISU WellBeing focuses on numerous areas to help faculty and staff find fulfillment in their lives. Recently, mental health has been an emphasis. 

"When you can declutter your mind and find some quiet, it helps you focus and improves the quality of life," Downs said.

The Employee Assistance Program offers free counseling, life coaching, financial and legal consultations, elder care and child resources. Caring for others is a daily occurrence for most people, but taking time for yourself also is important. Therapy Assistance Online can help develop life skills to find a better balance, and mindfulness activities also keep people connected and having a sense of community.

The pandemic reinforced how social humans are and the impact of a disruption to their social connections. Downs said a primary reason ISU WellBeing hosts events is to promote social interaction. Facilitating interactions among colleagues makes employees feel connected socially, physically and mentally. Making connections on campus often spreads into the community and leads to sustainable efforts on a larger scale, she added.