Team caps off challenge with mountain climb
The Plymouth State University wellness program reached a peak last fall – specifically, the peak of Mount Washington, New Hampshire (elev. 6,288 feet).
On a Saturday in October, a group of 20 faculty members, students, staff members, alumni, and partners spent 10 hours traversing the 9.9-mile Jewell Trail that led them to the summit and back.
“It was a long day, but so well-orchestrated by our PSU Outdoor Center guides,” said Denise Normandin, program manager for Healthy PSU. “Hike leaders Christian and Julie Bisson, along with student leaders, knew how to safely lead us up the mountain, and paced our groups by taking breaks when they knew we needed to.
“Between the fall colors, sunshine, and blue sky, I don’t think we could have planned a better day.”
The hikers, including the campus President Donald Birx, left the outdoor center at 5 a.m., but in reality their march up the mountain had begun a several years earlier, when the university launched its research-based health and wellness program after becoming self-insured.
“That really prompted our institution to say, ‘How are we going to do things differently? How are we going to educate our employees to be active healthcare consumers and make an effective difference in their health and well-being?’,” Normandin recalled.
A holistic approach
The university, which has a 170-acre campus in Plymouth, New Hampshire, with 4,100 undergraduate and 3,000 graduate students, is focused on distinguishing itself as a holistic health and wellness-centered environment by 2020 by supporting a culture of health across campus and beyond.
Its goal is to make wellness the campus norm, with an approach that includes exercise, healthy eating, and stress relief.
“I believe employers and families are concerned now more than ever with rising healthcare costs,” Normandin pointed out. “Health and wellness professionals have a unique opportunity to educate, provide guidance, advocate for policy change, and create environments for people to thrive.
“There is no better time than the present, given the current state of inactivity during the school and work day, than to promote purpose-driven physical movement and more holistic approaches to health.”
To get leadership support for the wellness program, the steering committee created the Healthy PSU program operating plan, which incorporates the Wellness Council of America (WELCOA) patented Well Workplace processes.
“It’s important to have that plan in place, assess where you are, and listen to your employees to know what will resonate with them,” Normandin said. “What can we offer that will truly make a difference in their lives, with long-term, sustainable, meaningful health behaviors?”
The importance of input
To determine what would resonate with the campus’s 650 employees, program coordinators and wellness champions listened to what staff and faculty members had to say about wellness.
“We knew we wanted to be able to have employees be in tune with healthcare, health risks, and most importantly their well-being,” Normandin said.
Biometric screenings provide data on health risk measures, and more than 30 wellness champions on campus encourage people to make healthy choices.
“Our wellness champions have been tremendous,” Normandin said. “It’s not just a staff member implementing a wellness program. We have champions who are embedded.”
Motivation from within
The PSU program supports internal motivation for wellness, and this priority is shown in the way it became a smoke- and tobacco-free campus. It discourages tobacco use by making a smoke-free lifestyle the cultural norm, not with a university edict.
“We want to be the encourager of health and wellness rather than the enforcer,” Normandin said.
A turning point in campus culture came when the student Senate enthusiastically supported the smoke-free policy.
“That’s when the shift occurred,” Normandin said. “Students talked about it and agreed this is something we should be doing.”
The campus became tobacco-free in August. There is no fine for violating the smoke-free policy, but there’s also no shame in reminding someone that it’s in place.
“People are respecting it,” Normandin said. “We do still have people walking across campus who are smoking or chewing tobacco, but we see people empowered to tell them that we are a tobacco-free campus.”
Eager to move
Employees also enthusiastically supported a 12-week On the Move national physical activity and well-being challenge from WELCOA last year. After the popular challenge ended, Normandin looked for ways to keep that momentum going.
An online component allowed participants to share their fitness dreams. A consistent message was that people wanted to be able to walk and hike with more endurance, and challenge themselves by hiking some of New Hampshire’s mountains.
The campus is located in an area offering numerous outdoor opportunities, so Normandin reached out to Christian Bisson, an associate professor of education and director of the campus Outdoor Center.
Building on comments from On the Move participants, the idea for PSU Summit Day was sparked. The project was approved by campus leaders, and an invitation to climb Mount Washington was extended.“I said, ‘Employees are motivated, they are moving more and sitting less and they are energized and want to continue’,” she said. “‘What can we do together to make this feasible?’”
Participants attended trainings sessions to build their endurance and learn proper trail techniques, and their efforts culminated in a climb that elevated the university’s status as a leader in wellness. Plymouth State University was designated as a platinum Well Workplace by WELCOA in 2016, as well as a Fit-Friendly Innovative Worksite by the American Heart Association.
“The experiences gathered from the On the Move initiative and PSU Summit Day have inspired a sense of community building and social connectedness at PSU like no other programs we have implemented,” Normandin commented.
The momentum will continue be felt this spring and fall. More ways to engage people in healthy living are being planned, providing a visible sign that the program is meeting its goal of connecting with people and finding a way to help wellness become meaningful.
“You have to bring it back to individuals and they have to recognize what’s important to them,” Normandin said. “We encourage our employees to lead with good intentions and inspire compassion. We are all human beings and when we feel cared about we are more connected and more engaged with those around us. We are also more likely to make better health choices.”
It may seem like a daunting task to try to motivate employees to have an internal drive for wellness and healthy choices, but Normandin notes that it’s a goal worth striving for.
“Don’t be afraid to set that stretch goal and see where it goes,” she said. “Maybe that mountain is attainable.”
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