How Campuses Bring Integrated Wellness to Broader Audiences | Athletic Business

How Campuses Bring Integrated Wellness to Broader Audiences

[Photo courtesy of California State University, Sacramento]
[Photo courtesy of California State University, Sacramento]

College and university recreation professionals are making giant strides toward integrating wellbeing across multiple campus programs and services. As many can strongly attest, these efforts by definition include consideration of employee health and wellness.

Take East Carolina University, which since the 2003 launch of its Employee Wellness Institute, has encouraged faculty and staff to adopt a healthy lifestyle in pursuit of attaining — in the words of the program's own literature — "an optimal state of mind, body and spirit." The program promotes eight dimensions of wellness (physical, occupational, spiritual, environmental, financial, social, intellectual and emotional) and has partnered with on-campus entities as diverse as Human Resources, Occupational Therapy, Student Health Services, the Counseling Center, the College of Business, the Office of Financial Aid and the departments of Kinesiology and Psychology.

"With wellness, everything overlaps," says Suzanne McDonald, assistant director of physical activity and wellness education for ECU's Campus Recreation and Wellness department. "We can connect everything. If we convince someone to start taking a group cycling class on a regular basis, we're touching on at least five of the eight dimensions: physical, social, spiritual, emotional and financial. Even doing a crossword puzzle or learning a musical instrument contributes to enhanced wellbeing."

The Employee Wellness Institute began as a series of interactive 10-week sessions held twice a year that explored each of the eight dimensions of wellness. Healthier, happier employees, research shows, result in less absenteeism and greater productivity.

By 2008, as campus resources became scarcer, the frequency of the Employee Wellness Institute sessions dropped to once a year. But by 2014, ECU officials began rebuilding the program and incorporating more departments. Today, the institute continues to evolve.

"Early on, it was life-changing for a lot of people," McDonald says. "If it makes a difference to one person, then it's worth it. We don't always know if people are going to walk away from this and keep going. But the goal is to incorporate new health behaviors, and if you're in a group setting with colleagues who also adopt those behaviors, you'll be more willing to keep doing them."

Currently, McDonald and her team are in the midst of conducting a needs assessment to determine what kinds of wellness information and assistance employees want, and identifying resources to make them happen. One early result has been an initiative to provide more lactation resources to working mothers who nurse, established in cooperation with a grant provided by the Pitt County Health Department. Another possibility, again in partnership with county health officials, is blood pressure education and the installation of blood pressure monitors on campus for employee use.

Even strategies as simple as encouraging faculty and staff to begin taking a 10-minute walk during breaks or scheduling a full hour for lunch to allow themselves to refuel for the rest of the day — instead of eating for 15 minutes at their desk — can do wonders.

To that end, ECU also offers "Lunch & Learn" sessions, with topics focusing on everything from goal-setting to diabetes prevention to mindfulness through aroma therapy.

Campus officials are hoping to expand the program as part of a five-year strategic plan with the goal of incorporating at least 10 percent of ECU's 6,000 employees by 2022 and providing funds for a full-time employee wellness manager.

"For integrated wellness to continue to be successful, it is going to involve going to the departments directly and encouraging supervisors to invest in this — to bring campus wellness further into their own workplaces," McDonald says.

'One-stop shop for wellness'
On the other side of the country, California State University, Sacramento, is striving to embody a culture in which no single person or entity "owns" wellbeing; rather, it is the responsibility of all — students, faculty, staff and other employees — to enhance the campus community's pursuit of a healthy and balanced lifestyle.

"We recognize that unless we include staff and faculty in our wellness mission, we're not taking a fully integrated wellness approach," says Kate Smith, who as director of The WELL oversees the university's campus recreation program and partners with Student Health and Counseling.

The WELL (which intentionally does not reference "recreation" in its name) opened in 2010 with the mission of "lifetime wellness through collaboration, education and innovation." According to Smith, it is the only facility within the 23-campus California State University system to have established an integrated wellbeing strategy by combining recreation opportunities with health and counseling services under the same roof.

"That was the vision when we were designing the facility — that it be a one-stop shop for wellness," Smith says, citing the cohesive design and color scheme, while adding that the universal lobby allows users to be greeted by a choice of destinations upon entering the building. "We want to show students how recreation and health are integrated and part of the big picture."

Like ECU, Sacramento State's wellbeing strategy adheres to multiple — albeit slightly different — dimensions of wellness: intellectual, emotional, environmental, physical, career/financial, spiritual and socio-cultural.

"We're committed to a public health approach that looks at individual programs but also facility programming, policy development and facility design," Smith says.

As an example of how that integration works within the 152,000 square feet of The WELL, she cites a recent incident in which a student's membership to the building's recreation components was suspended after an altercation with another student. In subsequent conversations with the suspended individual, Smith's staff learned that his behavior likely was caused in part by some personal barriers he was experiencing. Staff members asked the individual if he would be willing to accompany them to the counseling center, where a counselor ultimately was able to intervene and help reduce the length of his membership suspension.

"That demonstrates our commitment to having an integrated approach," Smith says. "We are very good at programming, but to be successful, we have to go beyond that."

University officials also have incorporated their seven dimensions of wellness into student-orientation materials and wayfinding signage for freshmen via distinctive icons that Smith hopes eventually will be adopted for campus-wide use. Additionally, Smith's team is working with faculty to educate them about the risks of setting midnight deadlines for students, because they disrupt many dimensions of wellness — including environmental, physical, emotional and intellectual — by encouraging students to stay up late and lose valuable sleep.

Smith says faculty members have been receptive to those suggestions, which also helps educate them about the impact of classroom assignments on overall student wellness.

"These are ways in which a campus can be successful in helping students as a whole," Smith says. "If faculty are creating a culture that negatively impacts student wellbeing, that's not part of a full-campus approach."

East Carolina University's Employee Wellness Initiative was one of two programs highlighted during a webinar presented last year by NIRSA and the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR). It was titled "Employee Wellbeing: How-Tos and Takeaways from Two Successful Programs" and can still be viewed on the CUPA-HR website (

Additionally, California State University, Sacramento, hosted the NIRSA Board of Directors midyear meetings in 2018, where one of the discussion topics was the campus's active engagement of an integrated, holistic wellbeing strategy.


This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Athletic Business with the title "How campuses bring integrated wellness to broader audiences." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.


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