Bringing Wellness Initiatives to Melmark New England

Melmark New England celebrates its 20th anniversary this year as a premier human service provider with a private special education school, professional development, training, and research center. Over 350 staff members in its Andover, Mass., location are committed to enhancing the lives of individuals with autism, intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families by providing exceptional evidence-based and applied behavior analytic services to every individual, every day. In return, leadership at Melmark has instituted wellness initiatives for staff that encourage healthy exercise, diet and lifestyles.

As we look toward spring, we are now turning our attention and program to stress management, resilience and mindfulness. We will be hosting a series of seminars on stress management for all staff at our multiple locations in New England.

The wellness journey began at Melmark New England in 2011. At that time, with the assistance of our benefits broker, we conducted needs and interests survey of our employees and reviewed their feedback. Based on those results, our initial focus was on fitness and nutrition programs that could be offered on site. The survey showed us that when our employees thought of ‘wellness,’ they were thinking of diet and exercise. So we first wanted to respond to that expectation. We branded the program, “Healthy Staff,” and created a logo. Quick emailed polls showed us the interest level would be in on-site classes like yoga and CrossFit. Based on the results, we began to offer yoga and Zumba with weekly sessions and consistent attendees who paid the instructor directly. We offered month-long exercise challenges, like planks and squats. In 2015 we hosted a team-based, four-week step challenge with 23 participants. Over the course of the challenge, team members achieved 1,614,400 steps!

Since our program began, consistent components have become the cornerstone. Perennial successes include our annual weight loss challenge, our onsite chiropractor services, our monthly newsletters, and flu clinics. We introduced an annual weight loss challenge in 2012 that we’ve done successfully in the late winter for the past several years. This year’s participation is a record high eight percent of Melmark NE’s total workforce.

Part of the goal of our program is to make self-care and healthy behaviors more convenient. To that end, we teamed up with a chiropractor who comes to our campus once a week. She has a dedicated and growing following. Every Tuesday, she sets up in an empty room, and employees are able to take five to 10 minutes of their day to get their adjustments and feel better, and they don’t ever need to leave our campus.

As we look toward spring, we are now turning our attention and program to stress management, resilience and mindfulness. We will be hosting a series of seminars on stress management for all staff at our multiple locations in New England. The seminars are included as an agenda item during existing in-service meetings, so we have a captive audience.

We’ve also began to focus on making the existing environment more conducive to healthy behaviors, and offer balanced meals in our newly renovated cafeteria. Our talented in-house staff enjoys being creative with the menu to make it appealing and healthful. We have also recently switched vending machine vendors, so the food offerings have less sugar and fats and provide better options for snacking. We are located in the middle of a suburban setting, so we mapped out walking and running routes for employees when they are able to take a break.

When it comes to infrastructure in guiding these new fitness plans at Melmark NE, leadership provides guidance and approval, human resources staff run the program; and employees are involved and provide feedback. Leadership meets and discusses the wellness plans on an annual basis during the plan renewal time period. Our human resources team meets about once every other month with the Wellness Director from our benefits broker, who connects us with resources available through our health plan and other offerings.

Nevertheless, our employees are the bedrock of the program. Our employee and organizational culture plays a huge role in the success of our health promotion efforts. Melmark employees are on average younger, and eager to live a healthy lifestyle. They are also extremely competitive and love a challenge. We take this into consideration as we design wellness programs and challenges. To keep the budget reasonable, our prizes tend to be chances to win cash or other prizes through a raffle. The reward or prize does not have to be very big, as long as there is the opportunity to win and take home bragging rights!

As we look to the future success and expansion of the wellness program at Melmark, we have plans to encourage more individual-level health promotion, including a personal health assessment with a small financial incentive. Having built a strong foundation of wellness and a wellness culture, we expect increased participation by two percent each year. The communications to promote and educate employees about the health assessment begins during the open enrollment period for our upcoming plan year in June

The Melmark wellness program is ever evolving and improving. As we continue on this journey, we try new and different things, then learn and adjust as we go. The long-term goal is to have a healthy and happy workforce that is best able to manage their individual health and wellness needs and feel a part of a healthy workforce in an environment and culture that supports them. Employees seem to be motivated and positive.  Healthy, energetic staff have fewer work injuries, which, in turn, means full staffed classrooms and residences, and a positive work environment.

Mercy Mutindwa, M.A., PHR, SHRM-CP, is the Senior Director of Human Resources for Melmark New England

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