Innovative program helps Wellesley combat employee stress

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Marnee Saltalamacchia needed workplace wellness program meQuilibrium the most in June 2015. Her husband had spent six days in the hospital because of complications from a chronic disease, hallucinating and unable to eat. Each day she came to work, and each day an email would pop up with tips to help her reduce stress.

Those emails, sponsored by her employer, Wellesley College in Massachusetts, continue to help her cope as the main caregiver for her sick husband. The fear that the next phone call will be from the emergency room makes being completely present at work difficult, she says.

But meQuilibrium, a digital coach that can be pulled up on a smartphone or computer, helps her re-center and focus on what she needs to do to be healthy.

“It’s nice to have a tool that acknowledges those emotions underneath the everyday,” says Saltalamacchia, the director of development at the Wellesley Centers for Women.

In 2008, there were an estimated 34 million unpaid family caregivers in the U.S., according to AARP. In 2014, 60% of family caregivers had full- or part-time jobs, and 55% reported being overwhelmed by the amount of care a family member needed.

In 2015, a year after offering meQuilibrium and many years after large employee health plan cost increases, Wellesley University costs were flat. Marymichele Delaney, associate director of human resources operations and total compensation, owes part of that to the employee wellness program. Data from meQuilibrium’s research showed that employees with a higher self-reported score of resilience had fewer hospital stays and a decrease in depression.

The virtual service is akin to a personality test found in a glossy magazine. Employees rate statements — “I get bogged down in thoughts that turn over and over in my mind,” “I get headaches,” “I get lonely and wish for more intimacy in my life”— on a scale of one to five. An algorithm analyzes the answers and provides the appropriate support.

Two years ago, Delaney and her human resources team were looking for a way to address the financial and emotional toll stress takes on Wellesley workers. She found that many faculty and staff couldn’t take the lunch hour off to attend an in-person wellness session. That’s when she implemented the meQuilibrium program.

MeQuilibrium CEO Jan Bruce co-founded the company five years ago with the goal to use published research that would bring a mix of self-help, therapy and positive affirmations to employees. The research landed on resilience as the thing that keeps people strong through adversity.

“Resilience can help people start to challenge and adapt their thinking and emotional reactions so they can cope better in the midst of a setback,” Bruce says. “We know stressed-out people aren’t their best at work, and we believe that in order to fix this we have to get beyond treating the symptoms and to the root cause.”

In the program’s third year at Wellesley, 250 out of 1,200 eligible employees have completed the meQuilibrium bootcamp. In 2015, the college offered $150 to incentivize participation. Delaney says she wants this number to grow, but it’s in line with what employers nationwide are facing in terms of engagement: 73% of employers in a 2014 Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. survey said getting employees involved with the wellness plan was their biggest challenge.

“People’s lives are just so filled that they’re trying to find time to do an employee wellness program,” says Larry Boress, president and CEO for the Midwest Business Group on Health.

“If they can find a program to do during lunch or on the train or bus, [it] can really save people.” He says employers are increasingly using programming that doesn’t require employees to talk to a coach over the phone or in person.

“We know stressed-out people aren’t their best at work, and we believe that in order to fix this we have to get beyond treating the symptoms and to the root cause.”

After two years, participating employees at Wellesley have shown a 15% overall decrease in anxiety, and 3.9% decrease in overall stress.

“When people are more focused on health, they get more focused on seeing the doctor,” Delaney says. “They get prevention and diagnostic tests, which does increase cost, but in the long run, keeps big expenses down.”

Saltalamacchia says because of the program, she doesn’t need to see a therapist to help her manage her stress.

“This doesn’t involve going to meet someone to figure out if you can work with them,” she says. And she hasn’t had to cut back her hours or stop working altogether. As a result of caregiving, 29% of daughters and 32% of sons had to reduce their working hours to help care for parents, according to a 2015 AARP report.

Saltalamacchia doesn’t think people have noticed a difference in how she manages the stress, but she certainly does.

“The thing people don’t understand is how I manage it,” she says. “So we could even call it a secret tool. I go through a lot of things, and I’m calm, cool and collected.”

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Stress management Employee communications Wellness programs Workplace culture