Ellery, assistant professor and associate director of the Fisher Institute for Wellness and Gerontology at Ball State University, said that in addition to developing programs based on health screening data, organizations need to talk to their employees, find what health behaviors they are willing to change and then design programs based on this feedback.
For example, in working with schools, she has seen them bring in a massage therapist to do 5-minute chair messages during breaks. They have also had an interior designer come in and talk about decorating ideas associated with colors and feng shui. Why take this approach? "We earn their trust and participation in our programs," she explained. "Then we can work into some of these areas more strongly based in science, such as reducing obesity."
Ellery said wellness programs often focus only on physical health issues, to their detriment. "Stress is one of the leading problems in the workplace. We work too many hours. We need to be more mindful of the social, emotional and intellectual aspects." She noted that many employees are either under- or over-utilized in their jobs. "If you have lots of skills and you are doing a job that doesn't fulfill you, that leads to stress. So there are a lot of other things we can do in workplaces that don't necessarily impact immediately this overarching obesity problem that we have but can still make huge steps. Once you address workplace stress and help them balance their lives, then maybe they can go out and take a bicycle ride with their family or do things that are going to enhance their health. It is a slow process."
Ellery said it is important to keep in mind that there are strong societal influences at work in terms of exercise and nutrition, and that workplace wellness programs must be cognizant of these factors. "Over the course of the last few decades, we have become this very sedentary society that works long hours and doesn't even necessarily take vacations to rejuvenate. We just have to change the culture," she said. "Until we do that, we can help people change their individual behavior but we are going to be sticking them back into the same environments and they are going to go back to their old habits, more times than not."
In promoting workplace wellness programs, Ellery said, occupational safety and health professionals can have a key role. "They are already part of the workplace and they understand the workplace. That means they are a key provider. One of the things we are trying to avoid is the whole concept that as a wellness professional, I come in and design program for you and I go away. When I go away, the program is not going to continue. This has to be something that comes from within the folks in that company. We can provide assistance, suggestions and resources to help, but it has to be something that is strongly embraced by people in the company."