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Merging Missions for Good Health

Addiction Professional by Colleen Beagen

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.

The program began a year ago with on-site biometric screenings and confidential consultations with health educators. The screening measured cholesterol levels, glucose readings, blood pressure and body mass index (BMI). Using the results of their biometric screening, employees completed an online Personal Health Profile (PHP), which provided a customized report containing overall wellness scores, identifying high-risk areas, and describing steps that can be taken to reduce future health risks. After the PHPs were completed, the participants were granted unlimited access to their own personal health coach and online tools.

To aid in managing R U Fit?!, Odyssey House hired a wellness coordinator (a Golden Gloves champion boxer and certified personal trainer), to act as a liaison between employees and the health and wellness provider. Her weekly motivational and fitness e-mails and twice-weekly workout sessions, held in one of Odyssey House’s gyms, have been instrumental in promoting the wellness program and encouraging staff participation.

The overall cost of the initiative, including start-up screenings, incentives, personal training, and online support, is approximately $20 a month per employee.

Staff Comments

The biometric screening offered an eye-opening experience for some of our employees, many of whom were not aware they had health issues. Sylvester Evangelista, director of our dental clinic, was alerted to high blood pressure and cholesterol as a result of the screening.

“Throughout my life I have been very athletic, but I was never really health conscious of what I ate. As I got older I gained weight in my midsection and started to feel very sluggish,” says Evangelista. “Since I started participating in the R U Fit?! program, I have turned my life around. I go to the gym five days a week and I try to eat five small balanced meals a day. I am happy to say that my blood pressure and cholesterol went down without medication and I feel great!”

Although in its infancy, the “R U Fit?!” program already has contributed to a shift in culture toward a healthier overall lifestyle. Out of 275 eligible employees, 259 underwent the biometric screenings—a 94% participation rate. More than 40% of employees signed up for a fall competition called the “10,000 Steps a Day” challenge, in which staff competed against each other and their facilities to take the most steps. More staff are expected to join our spring weight loss competition, “The Biggest Winner”—not loser!

Billing specialist Judy Cruz joined R U Fit?! early on and has been attending the wellness coordinator’s sessions regularly since they started in November. Cruz says, “I feel more energetic and motivated during work hours as well as afterwards. I believe that this program has made an impact in improving my focus and commitment to my job.”

Lydia Woodson, who works in the Odyssey House Manor Family Center, has found that participating in R U Fit?! has improved her health as well as her job performance. She says, “I am less stressed, I have a clearer head and I can carry out my duties better. I have encouraged my colleagues and residents to take charge of their health by going to the gym, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and eating better.”

Staff As Role Models

To Provet, employees’ health and well-being is particularly important because staff members are expected to serve as role models throughout the organization. Counselors, teachers, administrators, food service workers and maintenance workers all understand the important position they hold as role models for individuals in treatment for substance abuse and mental health problems.

Both staff and clients have access to Odyssey House fitness facilities and recreational programs. A pilot program for clients, called “We R Fit,” was launched this spring. This program is similar to the staff-based R U Fit!? model, but also includes in-person consultations with a registered dietitian and nurse practitioner.

“Role model staff inspire, challenge, check and motivate clients to look at themselves and realize they can become far more than what they have been,” says Provet. “Healthy choices lead to better health outcomes, and Odyssey House is committed to leading by example.”

Colleen Beagen is Vice President of Human Resources at New York City-based Odyssey House, responsible for developing and implementing human resources initiatives for 350 clinical, medical and administrative staff. Beagen joined Odyssey House in 2000 as Assistant Director of Human Resources and was promoted to Vice President in 2008. Prior to joining the company, she oversaw the career development division of the human resources department at Bell Atlantic/Verizon. Her e-mail address is

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