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Merging missions for good health

July 17, 2012
by Colleen Beagen
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 Today’s addiction treatment organizations embrace a holistic model for individuals in recovery that includes emotional, behavioral and physical support. A robust treatment plan focuses on all aspects of an individual’s health and functioning, and requires counselors to actively engage clients as a coach and partner. Interacting with clients at this level is mentally and physically demanding, with counselors’ skills tested every day to live up to the challenge. As research supports the importance of physical exercise in addiction treatment and providers look to incorporate fitness into their programs, the health and fitness of staff members becomes increasingly important as well.

Bringing wellness into the workplace is a natural development at New York City-based treatment organization Odyssey House, where the overall mission is to promote a healthy recovery for individuals and families facing a range of life challenges that can include substance use disorders, mental illness, homelessness and chronic medical conditions. In 2011, Odyssey House introduced a free, voluntary wellness program called R U Fit?! to encourage staff to improve their overall health and fitness.

This staff wellness initiative represents a continuation of Odyssey House’s commitment to support and promote good health among treatment program participants. It takes a similar positive reinforcement approach to the proven model Odyssey House developed with clients, providing staff with group support, free on-site fitness facilities and access to an employee-only online health coaching service.

Odyssey House’s objective in implementing a wellness initiative is to help workers change any negative behaviors that are undermining their health and to foster new habits, such as developing an individualized diet and exercise regimen that supports good health and stress reduction. While obesity and other diet- and exercise-related health problems are not more common than the national average at Odyssey House, staff expressed interest in improving their overall health and fitness. In the future, these changes are expected to boost morale and productivity, improve employee recruitment and retention, and reduce healthcare costs.

The development of the program was spurred by Odyssey House President Peter Provet, PhD, who has made wellness a top priority during his tenure based on his firm belief that “ultimately, it is the clients we serve who will be the beneficiaries of healthier, happier staff members.”

Provet adds, “Given the steep rise in healthcare costs coupled with increased awareness of the importance of a healthy diet and regular exercise, we looked at what we could do to both help staff improve their overall health and impact our bottom line. We found that a wellness program that offered personalized and confidential life coaching was a sound investment in our most valuable resource: the 330 counseling, educational, medical, and administrative staff who dedicate themselves to the mission of Odyssey House.”

A recent survey of American workers at businesses with 10 to 1,000 employees backs up this view. The survey found that 41% of workers agreed that having a wellness program encourages them to work harder and perform better at work; 52% said they have more energy to be more productive; and 35% said they have missed fewer days of work as a result of participating in a wellness program.

The Principal Financial Well-Being Index, compiled in the last quarter of 2011, further indicated that the type of incentive-driven and ease-of-access approach Odyssey House offers, an enhanced program that includes external fitness center discounts, on-site prevention screenings, access to wellness experts, and on-site fitness facilities, targets the wellness benefits that are most desired by employees.

Staff’s options

As well as being offered individualized wellness plans that they can implement at home, all staff are encouraged to practice healthy habits at work and have access to exercise equipment at Odyssey House treatment centers. The emphasis on diet and exercise is foremost in a number of events hosted by the organization, including the annual 5K fundraiser “Run for Your Life,” intramural sports leagues, and rigorous training with the Odyssey House Marathon Team (since 2002 more than 300 clients and former clients, staff, board members and other supporters have completed the New York City Marathon).

The goal of R U FIT?! is to complement these activities with free, online, confidential health coaching and personalized programs to promote weight and nutrition management, to encourage regular exercise and stress reduction, and to support smoking cessation.

To allay any concerns staff might have about confidentiality and to encourage trust in disclosing personal information, Odyssey House is providing these services via an outside company called WellCall. Data collected by the service is anonymous and reported in the aggregate, collated only to monitor participation and to refine services.

All staff that enroll in the service have access to a personal health coach and can take advantage of incentive options, such as earning so-called “WellBucks.” This is virtual cash that can be used to purchase health-related items such as exercise bands or stress balls, T-shirts, tote bags, and gift certificates to a healthy grocery store or sporting goods store, as well as entertainment rewards for movie tickets. In developing the program, Provet has emphasized a culture of reward for those who choose to participate, rather than a punitive approach toward those who do not.