When Emily Wert decided to undertake EBA's 2011Wellness Challenge, a 12-week personal health coaching program, she didn't have the usual expectations about what she would learn or accomplish.

One reason is that Wert already knows a lot about wellness - it's her job. As worksite wellness coordinator for Unison, an employee benefit advisory firm in Minnetonka, Minn., she helps clients design and run employee wellness programs. Furthermore, the 30-year-old outdoor enthusiast is the picture of health. She exercises with her dog, Jet, spends time in her garden, and makes sure her diet includes lots of fresh fruits and vegetables.

"I wanted to learn the tricks of the trade from a wellness coach that would help me personally, and I wanted to know how my personal challenges could help me relate to my clients," she recalls. Her goals were relatively modest: Make healthier meals each night for dinner, stop skipping breakfast, fit stretching and yoga into her exercise routine, and get more sleep each night.

However, after working closely for three months with experts from EBA's Challenge partner, OnLife Health, an award-winning health and wellness company in Brentwood, Tenn., Wert came away with far more than she expected. The insights she gained from her personal coach, Nichole McGrath, and from Belinda Marcel, OnLife's director of customer and organizational outcomes, have been life-changing.

OnLife's focus is "Positive Living." "Our coaching philosophy is to look at the whole person, not a problem or disease," explains Marcel. "We look at everything from diet and exercise habits to family life, to stress points and come up with a plan that fits them. We meet individuals where they are in order to come up with the best interventions."

This emphasis on the big picture enabled McGrath to quickly connect with Wert. "Working with another wellness professional represents a lot of pressure, because they already know what they need to be doing," she says. "When I reviewed Emily's health assessment, I saw that all of her numbers were great. I wondered what we could possibly work on. But she did report that she wanted to work on her nutrition and that her stress level could be high, so we decided to focus on that."


Time and time again

During the first few weeks of the Challenge, Wert said her stress was in check, so McGrath zeroed in on the nutrition goals. She suggested time management techniques that enabled Wert to implement new, positive behaviors that eventually became habits.

"One of my Wellness Challenge goals was to start eating a healthy breakfast every day," says Wert. "I learned a lot just thinking through why I don't eat breakfast. One reason was I did not want to take the time in the morning to make something. Now I prepare food, such as quiche, in advance to take to work during the week. You have to make conscious decisions around regular habits."

To demonstrate Wert's progress and reinforce her successes, McGrath had her record when she did and did not eat, and what she ate. "Measuring progress is a really important part of the behavior change process," she says. "When Emily started, she was eating breakfast infrequently or not at all. By the end of the Challenge, she was eating a healthy breakfast four to five times a week. That success led to other successes through the day - it got her off on the right foot."

At Unison, Wert supports a number of colleagues in addition to having her own client load. As open enrollment season ramped up, so did the demands on her time and her stress level. To address this, McGrath again focused on time management. "Emily was staying at work until 7:00 or 8:00, going home, and working until late at night. But she still felt unproductive."

McGrath found that Wert typically responded to emails the moment they arrived, which constantly broke her concentration. McGrath suggested she switch to answering non-critical email only two or three times a day. She also advised scheduling one task at a time and then crossing it off when it was completed.

"By the end of the Challenge, Emily acknowledged that she was able to check things off her list, leave work on time and not take work home. That was a great measure of her success."

Challenge take-aways

Wert's Wellness Challenge experience taught her many lessons, which she blogged about weekly on EBA's BeAdvised blog. One post in particular stands out, however:

"It was a revelation to see how much time, effort and dedication is required to change behaviors," she writes. "You have to make being well a priority; it's not just going to happen.

"Making time for all of the commitments we make day in and day out is extremely difficult," she continues. "Too often, carving out time for ourselves dedicated to achieving a healthier lifestyle is looked at as a luxury. We say, 'I'll go to the gym today - if I have time. I'll cook a healthy dinner tonight - if I have time.' At some point, we all need to stop saying "if" and make our goals a priority by making time to work toward them."

For Wert, the EBA Challenge was a huge success.

"There's great value in working with a personal coach; nothing's more valuable than having that continuous constructive criticism and encouragement. Coaches also get you to answer questions honestly about yourself. They push you, which they can do because they are an outside party. If your mom asked you why you didn't work out, you might blow her off with, 'I didn't have time.' But it's different when the coach asks, 'Why didn't you have time?' It's almost like having a little devil or angel on your shoulder that is getting you to answer yourself honestly. You have to be open and honest; there has to be trust there. I've learned so much about myself working with the coach," she says.

For McGrath, the 12 weeks reinforced that "there's always room for improvement on the continuum of wellness.

"I'm happy that Emily could see progress in just 12 weeks," she says. "It reaffirmed for me that anyone can benefit from this type of program."

The EBA 2011 Wellness Challenge may be over, but Wert's journey will continue.

"I won't be working with my health coach anymore, but I will continue to work on my health goals and be conscious of my personal wellness because there will always be room for improvement," she says. "It's never over, and I like to think of that as a good thing. What I tell people is, 'Jump on the bandwagon - [improving your health] is going to go forever, and there is nothing but fantastic benefits that come from that.' There are no negatives to being healthy for an individual or a company. And the longer you stick with it, the more results you're going to see."

How important is ongoing support for employees to the success of a wellness program?

There are good wellness programs, better wellness programs, and fantastic wellness programs. The difference is in how they support employees in reaching their goals.

For example, I see companies offering education on being well to employees. That's a good start, but they stop there. Distributing a wellness newsletter and sharing a few recipes is a wellness program, but it's at low end of the spectrum. You have to do more than that to get people healthier. You have to build a culture of wellness in the company.

I have a client that last year did a "Biggest Loser" type of weight loss challenge. It lasted six weeks and was a fairly successful little program. However, the company didn't do anything for the rest of year, and everyone gained weight back. I suggested they do it again this year, but every month have a check-in as a way to keep people going. That way, the employer continues to support the employees on their goals through the year. So far, it's doing quite well. They give out a little prize once a month to encourage participants to maintain or keep losing. What the company now has is a constant support system for employees - they don't want to get to end of the month and see their number go up.

Another client did biometric screening and found that many employees had high blood pressure. Knowing it would repeat the screening a year later, the company implemented quarterly testing so that controlling their blood pressure was always on employees' minds. This way, they can see if they're making progress or not. If you fall off the bandwagon and are only being evaluated once a year, it's a long time before you know you've fallen. That's not helpful. You have to keep it in front of people. Without continuous support, your results won't be as good.


You're a big proponent of using social media in wellness programs to motivate and support employees. Can you give some examples of how this works?

Today with social media you can have a personal coach out there anywhere, anytime, because so many people are talking online about what you want to know about. There's endless information out there. If you're an individual who wants a support system, there are online portals that can provide it. As long as there are no restrictions in your workplace regarding employees using social media, there are plenty of opportunities to use it.

One way is to have a company wellness page where employees can share ideas and challenge each other. This is for encouraging interaction among employees, especially if your demographic is already there. I heard about a company that sends health tips via text message to employees once a week. There are endless opportunities for using group Facebook pages and Twitter.

One of my favorite things is The FitBit, a pedometer that talks to an online portal. Through the website, you can talk to others with a FitBit and challenge each other. There are tracking devices, and if the whole company is on it, you can challenge each other. You can use the resources on the site even if you don't purchase the pedometer.

The two biggest caveats to employing social media are be sure to check the company policy to see if it's allowed and don't push it on a group that isn't interested or doesn't have access. If people aren't on social media, they won't automatically buy in.


How important is rewarding employees for participating in wellness activities? Are incentives a good idea?

Incentives are a good thing. But the type of incentive you offer is just as personal to a company as the program itself. Choosing it goes back to knowing your population and what drives your employees. I ask clients, "Do you need a big financial reward, or do you just need more support for the program to get participation?" Giving someone $100 can go a long way, but so can a note from a manager saying, "Good job; I hear you met your goal today."

There are three types of reinforcement. You get direct reinforcement with money or applause. You get vicarious reinforcement by sharing successes and learning from others. Self-reinforcement occurs when you allow people to track where they've been and see the change. You can't pay someone forever to be healthy; at some point they have to want to do it themselves.


You advocate tracking progress and evaluating success, both for individuals and wellness program managers. Why do you feel strongly about this?

I'm a big proponent of tracking because I believe you need to know where you are and where you are going, and be able to see that progress. You can't tell if you were successful if you don't have tracking to back that.

The first thing I have clients do is figure out where they are. Either do a health assessment or take an assessment of your company policies and procedures. Know where you're at.

The second step is to define your overall mission goals and objectives. All of your objectives have to be measurable so that you can go back and see whether you were successful. That will give you valuable information as the program director and will help you sell it to executives. I see a lot of companies just not doing it.

Even if you just send a wellness newsletter, track how many times it was sent, who read it, how enjoyable they found it, what information they would like to see in the future. This way you know whether you're helping anyone.

Another thing I can't stress enough is once you've set a goal for your wellness program, share it with employees. Shout it from the roof top so they know what you are trying to do. This shows that wellness is important to the company and helps to get them engaged. And when you measure progress, let them know what's going on. If someone sees that 50% of employees are participating, he may say, "Well, they are, I guess I can. And if you have big results-so and so has reached goal - get that information out to everybody, too. This way, people know what the program is doing for others and how they can benefit.


Do you talk to your clients differently now because of what you learned?

I really try to get executives and wellness program planners away from the idea, "If we start today, we'll have saved so much money by end of the year." I try to get them thinking about how over the next one, two and three years we can help individuals change so they are healthier. Those are two completely different mentalities, and one will be much more successful. Get goals set. Look at policies and procedures.

Do you have a nonsmoking policy? If not, put one in place. Do you have policy around food in seminars and the break room? For what's in vending machines? Around people taking walking meetings? If you do have these policies in place, make sure to share them with employees. Educate them about the company culture.

I often ask the wellness coordinator or HR director, "Is planning wellness part of your job description?" If it is, no one can tell you that you can't spend time on it.

Defining roles and responsibilities of whoever is in charge or involved in wellness is a big step toward creating a culture of wellness. If the person in charge of wellness leaves, and managing the program wasn't part of job description, then the program may leave with them. Wellness can't be the responsibility of just one person; it needs to be a core [company] value.


More from Wert online

Between August 3 and November 2, Wert blogged extensively about her personal coaching experience on EBA's website through her Wellness Wednesday posts. Readers responded enthusiastically to the blogs, which describe her personal journey and offer advice for wellness program coordinators in organizations. You'll find them at employeebenefitadviser.com/blog/wert.

Also on our website are two podcasts in which Wert gives tips for removing barriers that sabotage healthy behaviors and using social media to enhance wellness progams. The URL for those is eba.benefitnews.com/podcasts.


Read more from the Q&A on eba.benefitnews.com/blog/wert.

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