Friday, September 29, 2017
Healthiest places take a holistic view of wellness

By Rita Pyrillis

For employees at the Beach Cities Health District in Southern California, healthy living is more than just being physically fit. It's also about being part of a community, taking long walks with friends, volunteering to create gardens at local schools, or learning how to cook nutritious meals. 

While employees have ample opportunities to improve their physical health at the public health district's 17,000-square-foot fitness facility, they also have access to a wide array of services and programs that address their mental, spiritual and financial well-being. 

In fact, the agency's wellness program, WorkWell to LiveWell: Healthy Working Families, is built around five areas: physical health, social connection, community involvement, financial wellness and a sense of purpose. There are personal finance classes, community volunteer opportunities, a career mentorship program, fitness challenges and walking groups called “moia”—a Japanese term that means social support group.

“Integration is the linchpin of what we do,” said Megan Vixie, human resources director at the Redondo Beach-based organization. “That's the difference between having a culture of wellness and a program. When we changed CEOs last year, everything we built could have completely crumbled, but it's a self-sustaining system that can't be thrown off course because its such a part of who we are and what we do. ”

A growing number of employers are investing in “total wellbeing” programs that address issues like financial, community, environmental, spiritual and social wellness, according to a 2016 survey from Fidelity Investments and the National Business Group on Health. 

Classes in resilience and meditation and other stress reduction techniques are also booming, with 87% of employers offering emotional or mental wellness programs, according to the report. And that number is expected to rise with 67% of employers planning to expand their total well-being programs. 

The Beach Cities Health District, which offers preventive services and programs to residents of Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach, bases its holistic approach on the Blue Zones Project, a well-being improvement initiative that uses scientifically proven principles of longevity, health and happiness to improve community health, according to Jackie Berling, chief wellness officer at the district.

The project was developed by Healthways, a wellness company, and author Dan Buettner, who has written about the five places in the world where people live the longest, called “Blue Zones.” In 2010, Beach Cities teamed up with the Blue Zone Project to apply those principles to its communities. 

A mind/body/spirit approach to health is also behind wellness efforts at the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates, where discounts on health insurance to qualifying employees, on-site fitness classes, telehealth services, tuition reimbursement and a loan program to cover emergencies like a broken car or refrigerator, among other programs, help keep workers healthy on many fronts, according to Betty LeHew, vice president of human resources, at the not-for-profit organization.

“We don't look at health as just fitness but as total well-being,” she said. “Our benefits encompass the entire lifestyle—financial and emotional wellness and work-life balance.”

Employees especially appreciate the generous retirement plan, LeHew said. The commission contributes the equivalent of 15% of an employee's monthly salary into a retirement account, and they are 100% vested after two years. Another popular benefit is the tuition reimbursement program, which pays for up to five classes a year or 15 credit hours.

“You can go to the gym every day, but if you have stress, financial worries, family issues, you're not going to be healthy,” she said. 

Officials at Texas Health Presbyterian Flower Mound also understand how stress can undermine health, so they offer a meditation garden, a 2-mile walking path and on-site yoga classes. 

To help keep employees physically fit, there are discounts to local gyms, a team of dietitians and nurses, freshly prepared organic meals in the cafeteria that are priced lower than fried and fatty items, and a discount on Fitbit personal fitness trackers, which can be purchased through payroll deductions. 

They also monitor employee health through annual biometric screenings that measure cholesterol levels, waist circumference, blood sugar and blood pressure. Each employee's anonymous results are downloaded into a personalized wellness portal called “Revitalize Me” that provides them with an action plan, according to Nicole Schweigert, director of human resources.

Employees who show certain levels of improvement are eligible for a reduction in their insurance premiums. 

Rita Pyrillis is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

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