Wellness program entices nearly 60% of employees

Diversity, user-targeted classes drive success

The year-old Employee Wellness Program at Kaiser Permanente’s Santa Rosa, CA, facilities is unusual for a number of reasons.

First, it is a program designed by a managed care organization for its own employees. Second, since the program’s inception in 1996, 700 of the 1,200 employees have participated — an extraordinarily high percentage. And finally, the program would not have received any funding if the employees had not confirmed that they wanted a wellness program.

"You have to heal the healers first," asserts Samantha Reslock, MHSA, project manager for the program. "Modeling is everything, not only in the health care field but in industry in general."

Reslock adds that the cost-effectiveness of health promotion programming was an added incentive. "Our research into industry studies showed us that for every dollar we invested, we would save between $3 and $6," she notes.

Reslock’s position is part of a grant from the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Innovation Program. "Under this program, if you work at Kaiser and you feel you have a better idea, you can apply for a grant," she explains. However, when the program’s author, Victoria Maizes, MD, applied for the grant in 1995, she was given a very specific condition. "When she went to the granting source, they told her she could have the funds only if the employees wanted the program," Reslock recalls.

So Maizes worked with the Cooper Fitness institute in Dallas to develop an employee survey. When 62% of the population responded, the grant was a "go." (See sample of survey, inserted in this issue.)

The wellness program was shaped according to the preferences expressed by the employees. Their number one request? Herbal medicine.

Other employee suggestions included:

• meditation and relaxation;

• stress reduction;

• flexibility;

• low-fat cooking;

• weight management;

• self-defense;

• aerobics;

• women’s health;

• yoga.

Programs were developed to address all these areas, and the formal kickoff took place during a health fair in May 1996. "This gave the employees a taste of wellness," explains Reslock. Fair booths and activities included herbal medicine, Tai Chi instruction, yoga classes, and local health food vendors.

Next came a health risk appraisal (HRA), which included a mini-stress test, total cholesterol and body fat composition screenings, flexibility, grip and strength tests, and a lifestyle questionnaire. In the fall, employees received confidential booklets that recommend specific areas for lifestyle change. If a medical condition such as high cholesterol or blood pressure was detected, the employee was referred to their provider. "The HRAs were designed to help employees concentrate on activities they might need, in addition to those they might want," Reslock notes.

A wide array of programs

The program offerings began even before the HRAs, says Reslock. In fact, once the health fair ended, "We were up and running in two days."

In just one year, Kaiser has offered its employees an extensive variety of programs, including:

• classes in low-fat cooking;

• Akido, Tai Chi, and yoga classes;

• holistic approaches to menopause, including herbal and nutritional modalities as well as natural hormone replacement;

• a "Great Grains" expo;

• motivational speakers;

• custom-designed fitness programs;

• surviving holiday stress;

• physioballs;

• herbal valentines — how to spice up your love life;

• treatment of colds through Chinese medicine;

• coping with professional change;

• prevention and protection;

• empowering the caregiver;

• herbs and Chinese medicine for allergies.

Most classes meet once or twice a month, either during lunch or after work. One that Reslock is particularly excited about is called Fundamentals of Fitness. "This class teaches employees about how their bodies work and how to read their own bodies," she notes.

Another unique program is the "Pay Day Massage," where a massage therapist comes to the facility and provides 15-minute foot and back chair massages for $10. "Her schedule is usually full," says Reslock.

Morale gets a wellness boost

Employees have a $5 co-pay for each class, and scholarships are available. It’s too soon, says Reslock, to begin measuring what kind of return Kaiser will get on its $134,000 investment (including capital equipment). "But I think the biggest benefit so far has been an improvement in morale," she declares.

For Bridget Bunzel, RD, an outpatient dietitian, the program has meant a much healthier and more comfortable pregnancy. "The yoga program has helped me tremendously," she says. "There’s a lot of things women typically complain about during pregnancy, like back pain and ligament pain," she says, "But I’ve been able to stay really strong so far. I bet it has helped me stay at work as long as I have."

Reslock says she is planning to expand the current program into a return-to-work program for injured workers. "We’ve really done this so we could have a template both for corporations and other Kaiser facilities," she explains. "We’re working with four facilities now to look at a pilot called ‘Working Well’ for both healthy and injured workers."

[Editor’s note: For more information, contact: Samantha Reslock Kaiser Permanente, MOB-East, 2nd floor, 401 Bicentennial Way, Santa Rosa, CA 95403-2192. Telephone: (707) 571-3246. Fax: (707) 571-4346. E-mail: Samantha.reslock@ncal.kaiperm.org.]