18:00 PM

It's Important to Believe in the Benefits of a Healthful Work Environment

Newly released results from a health and wellness survey at The Ohio State University match what previous research has shown to be true: Respondents who reported higher beliefs in their ability to engage in healthy lifestyle behaviors also reported more participation in behaviors that support their overall health.

These data and others will help Ohio State create more faculty and staff "believers" that one's pursuit of health and wellness doesn’t have to stop when the work day begins, according to Bernadette Melnyk, Ohio State's chief wellness officer and dean of the College of Nursing, who spearheaded the survey.

"Implementing programs that can strengthen faculty and staff's beliefs about engaging in wellness and improve their ability to engage in healthy behaviors will impact what they actually do in terms of leading a healthy lifestyle," Melnyk said.

Melnyk presented the findings Tuesday (4/23) at the conclusion of the inaugural Building Healthy Academic Communities (BHAC) National Summit hosted at Ohio State, a major national initiative to improve population health in higher educational institutions. In addition to presenting Ohio State survey findings, she shared early findings from a similar survey conducted with summit attendees from 90-plus academic institutions across the nation.

Results from both recent surveys also suggest that while many academic institutions have taken important steps to foster a more healthful work environment, some obstacles hinder broader faculty and staff engagement in wellness activities – including a lack of workplace flexibility and perceived low leader support.

In particular, respondents from the two surveys reported, on average, that it is "somewhat" easy to engage in health and wellness activities and indicated that colleges or units were “somewhat” supportive of employee participation in wellness events. Staff and faculty also reported, on average, that they believe university leader engagement in promoting and role-modeling health and wellness fell between "somewhat" and "moderate" levels.

The survey of summit participants' institutions about their wellness efforts suggests that the obstacles identified at Ohio State are fairly typical in institutions across the United States.

"Perceptions that faculty and staff have about the wellness culture and environment affect their lifestyle beliefs and behaviors, so those perceptions are extremely important," said Melnyk, also associate vice president for health promotion.

"In the Ohio State survey and the summit survey, we had similar findings: How people perceive that their leaders support and role-model healthy behaviors was relatively low, so we need the leaders in our academic institutions to support health and wellness programs in their units and to role-model those behaviors."

In all, 3,959 Ohio State staff and faculty responded to the survey, and almost two-thirds of those who reported their sex were women. Of those who identified their university roles, faculty represented 18.4 percent of respondents, and the highest percentage of responses, 30 percent, came from administrative staff. Almost 73 percent of respondents were based at the Columbus campus.

The appointment of Melnyk as the university’s first chief wellness officer shows that Ohio State is serious about taking care of its own, she said. She also noted that conducting the comprehensive survey represented an investment of resources to help determine the health and wellness needs of faculty and staff as well as how best to respond to those needs. In addition, the university has formed the One University Health & Wellness Council, a universitywide leadership group setting wellness goals and developing plans to reach them.

With an estimated 31.2 million students, faculty and staff working and learning in higher education institutions across the country, Melnyk argues that universities should feel compelled to create an environment that supports health and well-being.

"Evidence from studies has shown that when people have higher levels of wellness, they are more happy, engaged and productive and have fewer chronic illnesses, which means they miss less work and cost less in terms of health care claims," Melnyk said. "There is an economic incentive to keep staff and faculty healthy, but it’s also simply the right thing to do as an employer."

Ohio State faculty and staff respondents also reported that day-to-day stress at work, on average, fell between "somewhat” and “moderate" levels. In addition, most respondents reported that they participated in three Ohio State wellness programs that also were ranked as the three most important wellness opportunities the university offers: the Your Plan for Health web portal, flu shots and free health screenings, in that order. Your Plan for Health is an Ohio State benefit program designed to promote prevention of health problems through a variety of services and incentives.

The survey data will be used to drive the next steps in Ohio State's effort to become the "healthiest university in the world," which will include a leaders wellness program, positioning wellness activities directly in campus units and monitoring health outcomes.

More than 90 other universities and colleges joined together for this first BHAC summit in an effort to promote the health and wellness of students, faculty and staff across the United States. Early findings from the survey of participating institutions suggest areas for improvement in institutions' wellness cultures.

When asked what one thing would help with participation in wellness activities at their institutions, the most common responses were:

•Flexibility in work schedules/time to participate
•A culture that encourages wellness
•Good communication about available programs and activities
•Leaders/administrators being fully engaged and supporting wellness
•Convenient locations and improved access to wellness resources

"Building a culture and ecosystem of wellness is critical for sustainability of wellness in institutions, and it will require working with individuals on behavior change since behaviors are truly the No. 1 killer of Americans," Melnyk said. "The wellness journey might be character-building at times, but it will be worth it as we foster healthier, happier and more engaged faculty, staff and students."