Indiana University Bloomington

New attempt for Indiana University wellness program underway

  • Oct. 16, 2013

By Jon Blau

With the formation of a wellness steering committee, Indiana University will again tackle a conversation about the institution’s role in advancing employee health.

Data collected by the Fairbanks School of Public Health at IUPUI this past spring will serve as a basis for the committee’s study on how the university can promote a healthy work environment for its 17,000 full-time employees, taking into consideration how their workplace shapes their health. The committee is expected to present findings in spring 2014.

The issue of wellness has been on the table for IU and other universities in the face of expanding health care costs. About three years ago, IU proposed a program to mandate biometric screenings. The hope was to identify people at risk for preventable diseases, such as Type II diabetes, but the practice was halted amid privacy concerns about how the data was collected.

This time around, the university will draw on employees’ “collective vision” for improving wellness at IU, according to Patty Hollingsworth, the director of health engagement at IU and the steering committee’s chairwoman. While the committee’s members have yet to be finalized, Hollingworth said the group will have to account for the university’s past experiences trying to implement wellness programs and find what “fits the culture” at IU.

“You need to look at everything,” Hollingsworth said, “but the most important thing to do is to listen to your employees.”

The only specific idea floated Monday was the possibility of a website that would provide IU employees links to class schedules, walking maps, stress relief tips and ideas for office workouts. Expanding existing programs will be another, including exercise and relaxation activities, but Hollingsworth said one of the major challenges will be identifying the incentives that motivate people to engage in healthy habits.

One avenue is financial incentives, but that has been a point of controversy within the Big Ten college community, with recent protests at Penn State about a program that penalized workers for not providing personal health information.

IU does offer a discount on its employees’ health care premiums if they sign an affidavit saying they don’t smoke -- $25 a month for individuals and $50 a month if both the employee and his or her spouse don’t smoke. Employees can also have voluntary exams administered at a doctor’s office or at a health center on campus, but those services aren’t well used, IU spokesman Mark Land said.

IU’s health care budget hit $213 million this fiscal year, starting July 1, up $15 million from the year before. At the same time, studies have estimated that 40 percent of all health care expenses in the U.S. stem from preventable chronic illnesses, caused by unhealthy lifestyle choices such as physical inactivity, tobacco use and unhealthy eating habits.

“Studies consistently show that a large percentage of what Americans spend on health care is for treatment of preventable diseases and conditions, so it stands to reason that the healthier we all are, the lower our health care costs should be,” Land said via email. “Beyond that, though, helping our employees lead healthier lives is the right thing to do for our employees as well as for the university.”

IU Vice President and Chief Financial Officer MaryFrances McCourt said the university wants to “give employees new resources and incentives to take greater control over their personal health and the costs associated with health care,” but McCourt and Hollingworth reiterated there are benefits aside from cost savings. Hollingworth said wellness can correspond with better employee retention and increased efficiency for those workers.

Preliminary results from IU’s survey, Hollingsworth said, show that IU employees are not faring as well as their peers around the country when it comes to stress and sleep. She said she hopes to draw from the expertise of the schools of public health on the Bloomington and Indianapolis campuses to forge a strategy for improving those survey results, but Hollingsworth said she would be “very surprised” if mandated screenings again rose to a top of a list of incentives the university would consider.

Rather, the committee could be looking to expand grass-roots campaigns to make wellness more accessible to IU’s employees at work, she said.

“We want to build a program of inclusiveness and collaboration,” Hollingsworth said. “We have worked a lot on illness care (as a state), but we haven’t done much in terms of illness prevention.”

Editor's note: This story from The Bloomington Herald-Times is being published here as a courtesy for readers of IU in the News.