Theme days fight stress inexpensively, easily

Rehab facility zeroes in on workplace fun

Thomas Jefferson said we have an inalienable right to pursue happiness, but for many people that pursuit doesn’t take place at work. Unless, of course, you happen to work at Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation, the comprehensive rehabilitation facility founded by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Warm Springs, GA. Imagine working for an employer that lists "having fun in the workplace" as one of its institutional values.

"I’m not aware of other rehab facilities that have fun as an institutional value," says Carolyn McKinley, executive administrator of services at Roosevelt Warm Springs, which offers both medical and vocational rehabilitation. "We made a conscious decision to make having fun a workplace value. We believe that, particularly in a health care environment, with all the stress and all the sadness that oftentimes takes place in our patients’ and students’ lives, we all need to have a little fun. The fun is not at the expense of what we’re doing, but to augment what we’re doing and to make it even better."

The Institute put some teeth in that intangible goal recently when staff members began coordinating monthly theme days designed to lighten up a stressful environment. In 2001, the state- run facility moved from the Georgia Department of Human Resources to the Georgia Department of Labor, says Martin Harmon, the Institute’s spokesman. "There was a lot of uneasiness among the staff about the change; it was a big transition for everybody," he says.

Add that to the stress every health care facility faces — nursing shortages, competition, budget constraints, reimbursement issues — and you have an environment ripe for a little levity. McKinley says the theme day idea popped into her head one day when she was walking through one of the units talking to the nurses. The more she thought about it, the better it sounded, and before she knew it, staffers were planning a luau for the first theme day. After a day of flowered shirts, flip-flops, a pineapple piñata, and a Hawaiian menu, the theme day idea was a hit among the nearly 500 staff members.

"It was amazing how people responded," McKinley says. "Everybody was talking about it. It was a great way to engage not only our staff but also our patients and our students. The therapists really took the idea to another level by gearing their activities for the day to the theme. We were still doing what we needed to do, but in a fun, creative way."

The luau turned into a series of monthly theme days, including a Halloween carnival, the 1950s, Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day, Western day, and a "Woodstock" event complete with a concert put on by employees with musical talents. New themes planned for 2003 include Harley Davidson, hillbillies, hats, and international day.

"We had limbo contests, costume contests, cake walks, and Elvis impersonators, just to name a few," says Rhonda Fuller, McKinley’s executive secretary and the first theme day chairman. "We crowned a Mardi Gras king and queen just like in New Orleans, we played staff two-hand touch football, and we did it all without taking away from any of our basic programs and services. In fact, our patients and students probably enjoyed it more than anybody. It was a lot of fun, and it was great to see virtually all of our direct caregivers — nurses, therapists, doctors, technicians — enjoying themselves by simply taking part."

Fuller organized a group of "theme day ambassadors" consisting of a staff member from each department to help plan and carry out each event. Fuller estimates she spent no more than a day’s worth of time each month and no more than $2,000 total for the year’s events.

"I worked in the private sector for 15 years, and there was never fun in the workplace. Coming to a place that does have that, I do feel different," Fuller says. "I feel more valued, because they do care about the stress you’re under. They do take the time to encourage people."

McKinley says that this type of activity is especially effective in rehabilitation. "One of the reasons the theme days have so much impact in a rehabilitation environment is because patients are here for an extended stay. We develop relationships with our patients and their families, and the theme days enhance those relationships that we already have."

The theme days provide a welcome bright spot in what is a stressful time for patients. "Patients depend on us, and it’s important that we remain upbeat and optimistic," McKinley says. "Many of these patients will never be the same again. They’re facing permanent changes in their physical and functional activity levels as well as societal, emotional, and social factors. Nothing else in recovery matters if you don’t address that emotional component. We want them to leave here feeling they are still important, whole people, regardless of any disability."

The theme days have been an inexpensive, no-hassle way to plug into the Institute’s goals. "We decided this was a way to reinforce our commitment to our organizational values, to relieve a little bit of stress and bring a little lightheartedness into the workplace," McKinley says. "It really has done a great thing for the morale here. It has carry-over even on the other days. This is part of our culture, part of what we believe in. It’s a way to solidify the camaraderie between the staff and the patients and students we serve."

Need More Information?

  • Carolyn McKinley, Executive Administrator of Services, Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation, P.O. Box 1000, Warm Springs, GA 31830-1000. Telephone: (706) 655-5008. E-mail: Web site: