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W&L Aims for Healthy Employees

A dollar spent could be three dollars saved at Washington and Lee University.

That’s because W&L’s increased emphasis on boosting the health of its employees will ultimately save on health care costs, said Mary Katherine Snead. She was appointed to the new position of assistant director for work/life initiatives in October 2008, and promoting the wellness of employees and students is a major part of her work.

“The research shows that healthy employees experience less sick time, take fewer disability days and suffer less risk of premature death,” Snead said. There is also a reduction in workers compensation, and what she calls “presenteeism,” where employees are at work but not getting anything accomplished because of stress in their lives.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 75 percent of an employer’s health care costs and productivity losses are related to employee lifestyle choices. And each dollar invested in wellness programs saves three dollars in health care costs, according to the Wellness Council of America.

Snead pointed out that W&L has several programs aimed at helping employees be healthier.

One of the most popular perks of working at W&L is the free fitness center.

Patti Colliton, a certified athletic trainer and strength and conditioning coach, offers a free personal training assessment for all employees. She also has a background in sports medicine so can work with employees with physical limitations.

The center offers different “Learn by Doing” mini-clinics each month. Some feature different speakers on wellness issues; others are more interactive. The most popular so far was the April Fitness Challenge in which people earned points to win prizes by working out. “We had 75 people take part,” said Colliton, “with a good mix between students and employees. We’re definitely seeing more faculty and staff in the fitness center and having these different offerings helps.”

W&L also offers group fitness classes. Employees pay $100 for a year, or $2 per week, and can go to as many classes as they want. “It’s a great value for both the employees and W&L,” said Snead. Included are different forms of yoga, kickboxing, Pilates, a step class and group cycling.

Walking is big on this campus.

A walking group encourages people who walk anyway to walk together. “Sometimes having buddies makes you more accountable so you show up more regularly,” said Snead.

Another popular program is Walking Works. W&L purchased 90 pedometers which it loans to employees. Participants track their steps or miles on a Web site, with the aim of reaching 10,000 steps a day.

A group of employees and faculty have also recently published a walking map of the campus that shows the distances between points on campus and on the back trails. Snead calls the map “very handy.”
For those who want to de-stress, there is a meditation group in the library where employees can experience a moment of serenity.

There are also two Weight Watchers meetings.

“At the first Weight Watchers session we had 51 participants and over 17 weeks they lost 900 pounds,” Snead said. “Quite frankly that’s amazing.”

Because Weight Watchers requires payment up front, W&L decided to make it easier for employees to afford. The college pays half the $100 cost and employees can arrange to have their half deducted from their payroll if they wish. “It makes it more accessible,” said Snead.

Employees who produce documentation from their doctor that they need to lose weight for medical reasons, can use pre-tax dollars from their flexible spending account.

W&L also pays half the cost of classes for smoking cessation through hypnosis, and plans to start a weight loss hypnosis group.

On top of all this, W&L plans to host a Health & Wellness Fair scheduled for this fall.

“We’ll bring together local health care resources,” said Snead. “We’ll also give people personal health risk assessments. They’ll fill out a questionnaire to give their weight and height and say whether they smoke, wear their seat belt, or talk on their cell phone while driving, etc. We’ll feed the answers to our healthcare provider and they will give us aggregate information. We’ll find out, for example, whether we have a critical mass of employees with risk factors for heart disease. In that case we will distribute targeted information about heart disease.”

Snead is quick to point out that she is responsible for only one or two of the wellness programs and many were already in place before she arrived.

“Different programs on campus grew out of different efforts across campus. We’ve been able to come together and begin working in tandem. As a result of our collaboration, the programs have gained visibility. We’re trying to market what we’re doing as a whole and be more collaborative.”

Snead cites the following people on campus as critical to the success of W&L’s wellness program:

James Dick, director of campus recreation, and Ray Ellington, assistant director of campus activities, organize the group fitness classes.

Dick and Ellington also published the campus walking map in conjunction with Bill Hamilton, associate professor of biology, and Chris Wise, environmental management coordinator.

Barbara Rowe, associate university registrar organizes the walking group, as well as the meditation class.

Patti Colliton runs the Walking Works program.