In this special three-part series, EBN profiles companies with winning wellness programs. Here’s the third company to be featured: University of Michigan.

In 2006, University of Michigan’s Wolverines football team lost just one regular season game, catapulting the squad to play the University of Southern California Trojans in the Rose Bowl. While they lost the championship game, leaders in the school’s “Maize and Blue” team colors sought to continue this winning attitude for their wellness program. This year, it placed 55th among the top 100 U.S. employers, according to a listing put together by independent corporate wellness research and data analysis firm Healthiest Employers.

LaVaughn Palma-Davis, senior director for university health and well-being services, says this all began in 2006 with a vision from its former president, Mary Sue Coleman.

Approximately three years later, the university rolled out health risk assessments, online tools, biometric screenings, telephone coaching and other programs for high-risk individuals on issues such as weight loss, tobacco cessation and alcohol management. The school etched out a five-year plan to track health improvements among the organization’s 40,000 employees, who are spread across four campuses.

“We wanted to be able to track what was going on at two levels — what is this entire program doing in terms of impacting the health of our population, and what is each program doing, in of itself, to demonstrate outcomes?” Palma-Davis says. 

Also see:Profiles of achievement in wellness: Whirlpool

On top of offering cooking classes and over 100 exercise classes per week, there are stress and energy programs under the MHealthy Thrive program and subsidized diet programs through Weight Watchers. U-M HR and benefit decisions-makers also sought to meld all aspects of improving health for its employees and faculty.

“We have an integrated model where we brought together all of our occupational health, clinical services, with our wellness services and our employee assistance services, all under one umbrella,” says Palma-Davis. “And that helps because it’s very synergistic, and we can use those resources to have a greater impact.”

She notes that U-M utilized a “social-ecological approach” to tackle what is impacting its population.

“There was no way we could do this with just our staff, with this large of an organization,” she explains. “It was part of our strategy to have champions out there in the work unit. It’s a voluntary role, but their supervisor has to support it.”

Now, with close to 400 wellness champions, Palma-Davis says that it has been a very positive component of the wellness program. Wellness champions have come to be viewed as real leadership positions for health and for creating a healthy culture. Annual retreats, presentations by thought leadership and departmental awards are just some of bonuses these champions have been given. For instance, prizes have ranged from canoe or kayak rentals and herb gardens to a massage chair for nurses and sit/stand desk for employees.

U-M also uses a triad approach to sustain its program, with interactions between supervisors and leaders, wellness coordinators on U-M’s HR staff and the wellness champion. She says the goal is to create a team that “can really make a difference and sustain the difference, and we know if we don’t change the culture, we will not sustain the difference.”

For example, the eight-day training and onboarding program for all new leaders at the university now includes a session that focuses solely on the business case of improving health and institutionalizing health culture across the board, Palma-Davis explains.

Also see:Profiles of achievement in wellness: Robert W. Baird

Collectively, the university’s staff have benefited in their efforts to attack health. From 2009 to 2012, highest risk-level percentages have taken a back seat to low-risk percentages, which are on the increase — now situated at around 40%. Also, top health risks have all shown decreases since 2009, including back pain, stress, depression, nutrition, alcohol, tobacco and physical inactivity.

Additionally, the self-reported average number of days absent from U-M due to illness or injury has somewhat decreased from 3.99 days in 2009 to 3.78 days in 2012. And of the 2,500 faculty and staff surveyed in U-M’s culture survey, nearly half say that their work environment is behind the maintenance of good health.

When asked whether U-M was satisfied with its current level of health culture success, Palma-Davis says, “It’s continuous improvement all the way.”

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