diverse group of people standing next to each other with their hands raised showing connection

Wellness at WashU: Powered by Personal Connection

If you’re looking for the Washington University in St. Louis wellness team, you’ll find them across the diverse campuses… determining what their populations want and need to be healthy. “We’re up and out — meeting employees, faculty, and clinicians where they are… in their space, literally,” notes Meg Krejci, Wellness Consultant for Mindfulness. From in-person services to a growing network of Wellness Champions, WashU’s aptly-named Wellness Connection capitalizes on the role of relationships, growing an impressive program in only 5 years.

Onsite Is Just Right

As part of Human Resources’ Employee Experience initiative, WashU’s wellness program serves over 16,000 faculty and staff, spread across 4 St. Louis campuses, plus satellite clinics; about a dozen staffers work at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. Despite workforce size, this program offers a remarkable selection of high-touch, onsite services.

Emily Page, Employee Wellness Manager, explains that a 1-size-fits-all approach — working with a single vendor for all programs and services — wasn’t the best fit at WashU. They’ve transitioned to onsite services where it makes sense, with backup from multiple vendors to administer the program. “Now we’re getting participation from employees who just want to step away from their office — maybe with a coworker — and have a wellness experience in an hour or less.”

Choose Wisely

Selecting the right vendors has made a huge difference for the program, notes Lauren Buschhorn, Wellness Coordinator. “We know what our employees want and need, and our vendors have been very accommodating to the WashU way. They work really well with everyone and have already made a lasting impact.”

Experts in the House

“We’re building a program that’s based on our culture and a desire to create personal connections with experts,” Emily confirms. “Employees like having somebody they get to know who understands where they live, where they work. Moving to an onsite model with a lot of our services has been really well received.” The Wellness Connection team itself comprises accomplished well-being professionals… a unique feature of this program. “It’s more of an investment to have highly trained, experienced people; but it’s something we value.”

Employees participating in a yoga class

An agreement between Wellness Connection and a WashU faculty-directed program, MyWay to Health, gives employees access to personalized health coaching by WashU registered dietitians with expertise in behavior change. “We’re seeing a huge response; people like that the RDs are WashU experts and the program is rooted in over 25 years of university research.”  MyWay Program Manager, Holley Boeger, attributes the incorporation of Family-Based Behavioral Treatment (FBT) and Enhanced Social Facilitation Maintenance (SFM+) — developed by Denise Wilfley, PhD, a WashU expert in weight management — as key to improving the sustainability of behavior change outcomes. “People need healthy habits to be as easy as possible, so we get into the details and develop an action plan for how to make change happen. We’ll even do role playing with employees to help them figure out how they will speak to their family members. It’s another way to individualize the experience.”

Meg, who has over 20 years of experience teaching Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program for individuals of all ages, leads the Move Into Mindfulness program. She offers classes in 2 series: 7-week Basics and 7-week Beyond the Basics, as well as other formats (see sidebar).

Working alongside the Wellness Connection team is Teresa Fisher, an onsite UnitedHealthCare® Nurse Advocate with over 10 years of experience in a broad range of healthcare. Teresa provides a variety of services — from blood pressure checks and chronic condition management to health coaching and provider/resource referrals. “People are surprised when they find out I’m here; their reaction is, ‘This is great!’” 

Washington University's Wellness Connection Champions

Wellness Connection Champion Network

Though extending the wellness team’s reach with volunteer ambassadors isn’t a new idea, the way WashU trains, engages, and supports their Champions is unique. “We’ve taken the time to dive into the culture within our Champion areas,” Emily explains. “Each campus has distinct departments and groups, and many times what works in one place doesn’t work in another. So we’ve tried to understand the needs and challenges and how to better support our Champions.” Connecting with WashU faculty who research worksite wellness also guides their approach. “We learn a lot by observing the interventions they design and the outcomes they achieve.” A few highlights:

  • The Champion role is open to all employees interested in promoting a culture of health and well-being, serving as a liaison to their department for wellness. Employees complete a partnership agreement and get approval from their supervisor. “The Champions are our direct line of communication to their colleagues; personal connection is key to keeping people informed and engaged,” affirms Nikki Hafner, Employee Wellness Coordinator and dedicated resource for the Wellness Connection Champion Network.
  • Champions are given a clearly defined mission: to Announce their role, Listen to their coworkers, Lead by example, and Share their successes. They receive ongoing communication and support: a monthly newsletter to highlight upcoming services and the work of Champions; toolkits with program details; and quarterly in-person meetings that include training plus leadership skills. Nikki adds: “We make it as easy as possible for the Champions to champion. It’s the best way to keep them engaged.”
  • Another feature is the Champion leadership group. “This is a smaller group of Champions who have stepped up to be a sounding board… to map out strategies based on recruitment and retention, evaluation, training, and communication.”

“Part of our strategy is developing an identity for Champions and giving them a brand so they’ll be recognizable and feel proud of the role they’re taking on. This also helps us with getting support from their managers,” Emily points out. With the network growing at a rate of 15-16 Champions a year, Nikki is working on a more formalized strategy for the application process, onboarding, and orientation. 

Washington University employees enjoy sharing healthy eating tips

Empowered to Lead

A big factor in the program’s success is how Champion responsibilities are applied. Examples:

  • Before launching 10K-A-Day, Champions could register a day earlier than other employees and were encouraged to be team captains to drive participation and engagement in their departments. The result? 85% of Champions participated, with 65% leading a team. In total, WashU had the highest employee participation in the walking campaign since they started the wellness program in 2014.
  • The Wellness Connection team reaches out to the Champion Network as needed to raise participation for onsite events such as biometric screenings. “I emailed our Champions asking for support in promoting a mammogram screening event; appointments tripled in that location.”
  • Champions can request and coordinate onsite wellness services for their department and other nearby employees for convenience and a more personalized experience.
Leadership Support

Emily emphasizes employee well-being is a priority for WashU: “As a leading academic university and medical school, we aim to foster a culture that supports healthy minds and bodies. WashU Human Resources is focused on providing a positive employee experience; our program is among several aimed at helping employees thrive.” She meets with a new executive Champion group once or twice a year with a goal of reaching all leadership levels to boost Wellness Connection awareness. These senior leaders come from a variety of significant areas at WashU. “We are lucky to have the involvement of some very busy people. They are still learning about our new strategy and considering how to provide the right support. It’s about creating awareness of all that we’re doing.”

On the Horizon

The team is excited about partnering with school of medicine faculty to adopt a framework called 8ight Ways to Wellness. “It’s a campaign focused on evidence-based approaches to reducing risk for a whole host of chronic conditions, and we’re looking to expand on that to address the mind-body connection,” Emily summarizes. 8ight Ways was developed by Graham Colditz, MD DrPH. “Our program is made for WashU, with guidance from WashU.”

A new dedicated space for group fitness is the right environment for employees to focus on 1 of the 8ight Ways: being physically active during their day. Meghann Feely, Assistant Director of Fitness & Wellness, sees this new collaborative effort as a critical step to successfully meet employees where they are. “Having dedicated spaces around your organization for employees to focus on their mental and physical well-being brings a practical, accessible way for them to make healthier choices for themselves.”

Mindfulness Focus

Mindfulness-based stress reduction is becoming highly popular at WashU, thanks to training in a variety of formats, from weekly mindfulness Basics or Beyond the Basics classes to miniseries and overview classes. Meg explains: “I customize the program for wherever the requests are coming from. It’s pretty exciting to see the program grow. There is a lot of opportunity here. We’re actively looking to connect the mindfulness philosophy and practice with other university priorities, including training on unconscious bias and addressing physician well-being.”

WashU’s beautiful campus offers several spaces for quiet contemplation or prayer. People can do walking meditations or sit on a bench to practice. “We’re really making some headway with stress and also the intention to influence a culture, creating a more kind and compassionate community. In the end, we don’t just practice mindfulness for ourselves, we practice it for others in our lives.”

Going to the People

The tremendous amount of thought and care that Emily, Lauren, Nikki, Meg, Holley, Teresa, and Meghann put into serving WashU employees is plain to see. And the extent of personal connections the team makes every day… in departments, staff meetings, conference rooms across campus… is an inspiration in these digital times. WashU’s Wellness Connection is firing on all cylinders, and for good reason: exceptional leadership, teamwork, and outreach.

For more information, visit WashU’s Wellness Connection at hr.wustl.edu/wellness-connection/ or contact emily.page@wustl.edu.


Beth ShepardBeth Shepard
Well-being consultant, educator, writer |National Board Certified Health & Wellness Coach |ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist |Lifestyle medicine advocate |25+ years in wellness |Jazz enthusiast.

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