Wayland wellness effort aimed at creating healthier university

January 11, 2010


PLAINVIEW – Six months ago, Ron Appling could not get his college class ring onto his finger. And his wedding ring seemed to be permanently melded to his left hand.

              Today, both slip on and off easily as Appling continues to shed weight he started losing in August 2009 as his employer, Wayland Baptist University, officially kicked off its Wayland Wellness efforts.

              As human resources director at WBU, Appling had the task of building a wellness plan from the ground up, unveiling the plan to employees and answering the barrage of questions that come with implementing such a program. While the process has been challenging at times – especially with Wayland’s unique system of 13 campuses spread across several states – the benefits are beginning to show, and not just around Appling’s waistline.

Ron Appling

              “Our goal is to eventually have 80 percent of our employees participating, and so far in Plainview and Lubbock, where we’ve started the program, we have about 70 percent,” said Appling, who started the wellness journey with wife Deanna in August and is 40 pounds leaner himself. “Our main objective is to keep the healthy people healthy, get the critical people to moderately healthy and the moderately healthy to more healthy.”

              The reason for the kickoff was simple: skyrocketing health care costs and rising insurance claims by university employees meant premiums on group insurance were following the same trend. Employees began having to pay a part of their own premiums in July – previously those were paid in full by Wayland – and university officials feared the pattern was only going to get worse.

              Coupled with concern for their employees’ health and wellbeing in general, Appling said executive vice president and provost Dr. Bobby Hall said it was time Wayland investigated other measures to improve the health of its employees for their own good and to combat fiscal concerns to both workers and the university. A wellness program was the logical next step.

              The trend is not unique to Wayland, as companies of all sizes nationwide are finding health care more and more costly and hard to provide at reasonable rates to their employees. While still a relatively new concept for many, wellness plans are becoming more common as businesses try to protect their most precious asset – their people – and their dollars.

              “Like most organizations today, Wayland has experienced dramatic increases in health care costs. While we continually look for ways to better manage those costs while preserving quality health care benefits, it became apparent that we also needed to develop a Wellness Program,” Hall said. “The program is designed to provide resources to assist employees in improving their own health, which will benefit both the employee and, ultimately, the institution.”

              Appling noted that the health issues facing Wayland employees were not unique to the university but were byproducts of the changes in society, which is largely less active on the job, more sedentary at home and more dependent on eating out and processed foods.

              To get the wellness effort underway, Appling first contacted Wayland’s benefits consultant, who directed them to a third party who implements wellness programs. The university already offered annual screenings to employees on-site, where basic biometrics were gathered and a variety of blood tests run to target any possible lurking health concerns. That spring effort was moved to September and the HR office pushed heavily for all employees to participate.

              The next step was to have a Web site set up where employees can log in, enter their information and have a health risk assessment completed. The assessment then makes suggestions for improvement and offers reading materials and hints for folks to improve their health and wellness. Employees can set up an action plan for improved eating or exercising and log their progress daily.

              Knowing that many employees might be starting from square one on a workout routine, Appling and the group developed a walking initiative to get employees started on something simple for most people to begin. Paired with the new Laney Center indoor walking track, the program was easy to implement. For those who prefer other types of exercise to keep on track, the Web site allows for a conversion from minutes of exercise or sports activities into “foot miles” and keeps track of how far employees have walked over time.

              Other aspects included bringing a Weight Watchers group meeting to the campus once each week for the convenience of employees who needed that assistance. Also, Appling enlisted the campus’ certified personal trainers – one a new faculty member and two staff members – to guide employees who desired a more personal approach to designing their fitness plan.

              While not everyone needs outside motivation to get fit, Appling said incentives definitely work with the majority of employees, so he set out to determine a plan to reward folks for their progress. Milestones were set up according to the distance to each of Wayland’s campuses – starting with Lubbock at 45 miles and ending in Hawaii – with certain prizes available at each milestone.

              From a cost standpoint, Appling said the old adage “it takes money to make money” could apply to wellness as well. The financial benefit to the university will not be immediately seen.

              “It’s not a cheap project at first, so you have to trust that you’ll recoup that cost over the coming years in claims savings,” he said.

              The program has seen its successes so far and Wayland believes it will continue to benefit the university in various ways. Appling said while year one will close out with some leaner, healthier employees, in the long term Wayland may never know what the benefit impact is to its people.

              “We don’t know what significant health problems the wellness program may have prevented for people; that’s the key,” Appling said. “What if the program saves somebody’s life because they had no idea about some condition they had?”