Teamwork means healthy, happy health care workers

Group approach boosts wellness

Want a healthier, happier workforce? Try the team approach to wellness.

Employers often offer incentives for their employees to lose weight, stop smoking, exercise, or otherwise adopt healthy habits that eventually lead to lower medical costs. But at Oregon Health & Sciences University in Portland, those incentives are boosted by teamwork.

With “Healthy Team, Healthy U,” teams of about five employees join together for 12 weeks to learn about healthy lifestyles and to work toward goals.

Individuals earn points for logging into the program’s website and completing tasks. But if the entire team attends 30-minute weekly sessions and completes activities, the employees can double their points — which add up for bonus money or discounts off their health insurance premiums.

“It’s our belief that people are hardwired to be in teams, to be in groups,” says Linn Goldberg, MD, professor of medicine and head of the Division of Health Promotion & Sports Medicine and director of the Human Performance Laboratory at OHSU. “That’s how we survived throughout the ages.”

The employees take turns being the team leader, and they share scripted information from a wellness guide and workbook. This works better than lectures or other types of education, says Goldberg. The teams even work together to create their own “public service announcements,’ promoting lifestyle changes.

“You want it to be interactive,” he says. “You really elicit the genius within the employees. They become not only the receivers, but they are those who induce other people to be active and healthy themselves. You create a web of folks who encourage healthy behaviors throughout the environment.”

The program is based on the “peer influence” approach used with other groups, such as anti-drug programs for teenagers. In an animated online video, Goldberg explains the concept to the employee-teams as an introduction: “Coworkers plus common goal equals remarkable results.”

And so far, the results have been remarkable. “We reduced BMIs [body mass index] for those above 25 [which are overweight or obese],” he says. “We reduced systolic blood pressures of 10 mm Hg mercury for those over 135 and we reduced diastolic 5 mm Hg mercury for those 85 and above.

“We reduced depression scores to ‘not depressed’ for those who said they were depressed when they started. We improved happiness scores for those who said they were not happy. We almost doubled the amount of fruit and vegetable intake for those eating two or less servings a day. We just about doubled exercise behaviors for those [who had] less than two [exercise sessions] per week.”

Overall, employees reported that they felt healthier and missed less work after the 12-week program, Goldberg says.

Among those with high blood pressure, the average diastolic reading dropped from 92 to 87 and the average systolic reading dropped from 142 to 132, he says. “That’s as good as a drug does,” he says.

The program also attracts employees who already have a healthy lifestyle and normal weight, acknowledges Goldberg. “You want them to continue with their good habits, but you really need to impact those with unhealthier habits,” he says.

About 3,000 of the university and health system’s 14,000 employees participated when the program launched. This year, they will be able to join a 2.0 version. “It’s a little more vigorous. We’re demanding a little more,” says Goldberg. Other employees are signing up for the initial program, as well.

They all hear the basic message of “Healthy Team, Healthy U,” as Goldberg’s animated character says on the video: “Your team is counting on you. Through this proven health intervention, you’ll be making healthier decisions and getting rid of all those pesky health risks surrounding that sedentary lifestyle in no time.”