Case Western Reserve University Well-Being Programming Gets Personal

Spend a few minutes chatting with Elizabeth Click and Mary Ann Dobbins about Case Western Reserve University’s well-being program and you come away thinking this is how workplace wellness should be done. While initial discussions began in 2011 — spurred by rising incidences of chronic conditions and associated expenses ― the formalized effort is just 4 years in the making. What’s emerged is a homegrown program that makes best possible use of internal resources and expertise. It goes selectively outside the university for services to meet specific needs. But the most compelling aspect of Case Western Reserve University’s well-being approach is the deep commitment to knowing, then addressing, staff and faculty interests as well as needs.

In the Beginning

A new medical director position was established in late 2012, in part to lead program development and have a broad-based program, with incentives, in place by 2014. Elizabeth, an assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University for the previous 8 years, accepted the role. She soon recruited Mary Ann, whose background included stints at Progressive Insurance (where she and Elizabeth first worked together) and Duke University, to manage day-to-day operations and become well-being coordinator.

Before jumping headlong into providing services, Case Western Reserve University did its homework ―  researching university well-being best-practice models, exploring successful corporate programs in its region, and ultimately adopting the WELCOA framework (The 7 Benchmarks Evolution) for program design. (For a detailed overview of the university’s application of the framework, read Essay: Creating a Culture of Health — One University’s Experience).

Maybe the most important step in getting a successful program off the ground was the extent they sought input from leadership, stakeholders, and the 4100 benefit-eligible faculty and staff they serve. That foundation continues to sustain the program today. “Our president and provost are very supportive, often highlighting aspects of our offerings in presentations or other communication on campus,” notes Elizabeth. “Our incredible instructors… really engage with our participants. We’re very lucky to have them on campus,” confirms Mary Ann.


All Well-Being Is Local

One early decision they credit for staying close to the population was not having a wellness platform. Mary Ann explains: “It gives us a better sense of what people are really drawn to, while I think sometimes a platform can be a technical barrier. We can tell what people are enjoying and what they’re not so interested in pretty quickly.” Elizabeth adds: “It allows us to offer information and services in ways that people can more easily engage and participate in.”

Case Western Reserve University’s well-being programs make extensive use of world-class, on-campus expertise, and employ talent within multiple schools and departments to deliver physical activity, weight management and nutrition, stress management, tobacco cessation, and financial well-being services. “We can offer programs in a more personal way, where people get to know others across the university and interact with colleagues… It seems to work really well for us,” comments Elizabeth.  “And with the help of the university’s Benefits team, HR Service Center, and UTech groups, we have necessary technical and personal support.”

Creating Community

An exciting emphasis for Case Western Reserve University is a series of services designed to foster a sense of community on campus:

  • Sustained Dialogue. This initiative focuses on student groups as well as faculty and staff groups. People get together early in the semester, meet weekly to discuss campus and diversity issues, and come up with recommendations to improve the campus experience.
  • Books@Work. This Cleveland-based nonprofit uses literature to build workplace skills. Led by Case Western Reserve University faculty, the discussions break down barriers and build a workplace culture of trust, respect, and connection.
  • Crafters@Case. Now in its fifth year, Crafters@Case brings together a diverse group of faculty, staff, and students from the university, University Hospitals, and Cleveland Clinic. Together they create hats, scarfs, and other items for donation to local charities.

Most of the community well-being, and other wellness incentive offerings, are live, multiweek programs. Meeting times and locations vary to allow as many people as possible to participate. They also provide online alternatives for those who cannot attend.


Dollars That Make Sense

Like many workplace programs, Case Western Reserve University offers incentives for participation. It’s a 2-part system where participants can earn up to $500/year.

Wellness premium: Benefit-eligible employees who complete the biometric screening, HRA, and tobacco attestation form receive $25 a month ($300 annually).

Cash incentive: Participants who complete any of the 6 program areas receive $100, and another $100 if they complete a second.

Unlike some plans, the university’s well-being incentive approach isn’t punitive. Plus, the amounts are modest. This creates a positive experience that, when combined with quality programming, produced 58% voluntary participation in 2017. Many more who aren’t enrolled in the incentive program participate anyway because of its quality and reputation.

Boots on the Ground

Case Western Reserve University recruits Wellness Champs whose volunteer job is to spread the word. It’s about an hour commitment each month. It involves creating a list of campus coworkers/friends and sharing biweekly emails on upcoming activities. They also help out with events on campus, like leading walks and staffing the well-being program table at the annual Party on the Quad. “We really rely on them and their judgment as to what people are interested in. We have very enthusiastic folks that we’re very grateful for,” Mary Ann reports.



Not everything the well-being program touches turns to gold. Early on, Case Western Reserve University enlisted the University of Michigan Health Management Research Center to help with data collection and analysis. There was, and is, a heavy emphasis on evaluation. But the UM center closed in 2016. So they had to regroup and start again in 2018 with a new vendor. Elizabeth underscores, “It’s important to us to have a full understanding of the comprehensive impact of the program on our population.”

And, like other wellness programs, some segments — particularly men and faculty — are underrepresented in their participation numbers. “We haven’t really figured it out,” Elizabeth says, “but we’ve learned we’re not alone. Other universities tell us they struggle with it as well.”

“It’s Dawn?!? I love Dawn!”

Looking ahead, the well-being program plans to leverage its considerable on-campus talent pool and expects more participant reactions like that to Dawn, an instructor. Elizabeth adds: “In many ways, our facilitators are active promoters of helping each person realize their potential.”

A healthy university well-being toolkit is in the works following extensive research with other universities and detailed feedback from the Champs. Mary Ann expects this to be another way for groups within the organization to personalize their well-being experience.

Chronic condition programming is an area of focus going forward. To that end, Case Western Reserve University is piloting a coaching solution this fall and exploring ways to leverage a new HRA tool later this year, as well as onsite biometric screenings. The purpose of these tools is to channel people into appropriate interventions. Farther down the road the university is exploring ways to engage spouses/domestic partners in well-being services.

Parting Thoughts…

As Elizabeth and Mary Ann reflect on the university’s well-being program progress to date, they underscore the importance of knowing your environment and having as many connections as possible, internally as well as regionally. With each new initiative, they highlight the need for extensive research on best practices and vetting of instructors and services. Both see an even brighter future ahead for Case Western Reserve University’s well-being efforts.


Dean WitherspoonDean Witherspoon
Dean Witherspoon is CEO and founder of HES and has been the managing editor of the Well-Being Practitioner (formerly the Health Promotion Practitioner) since 1992. He leads the most creative team in wellness, serving organizations worldwide with best-in-class workplace wellness campaigns.

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