Wellness Program Gets Personal to Retain Senior Living Workers

Attracting and retaining workers might be the top challenge in senior living today, with 2.5 million more long-term care workers needed in the United States during the next 15 years.

Top operators are working on multiple fronts to be an employer of choice, including through employee wellness programs that offer benefits like on-site physical fitness classes, biometric screening, healthy food choices, and discounts to wellness-related services and organizations.

Maryland-based Asbury Communities, which operates five continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs), embraced the employee wellness trend in launching its WOW! (Working on Wellness) initiative in 2009. Looking at how one Asbury CCRC has implemented, grown, and improved its WOW! offerings provides a case study on employee wellness—and its most recent innovations suggest that focusing on employees’ most basic needs could have a bigger payoff than offering increasingly sumptuous on-site gyms or lavish incentive programs for participation.

An Aha Moment

Even before WOW! was implemented seven years ago, each Asbury community had some form of employee wellness program in place, says Jana Scavona, director or wellness at Inverness Village, a 190-acre Asbury Communities CCRC in Tulsa, Oklahoma. However, the company recognized that makeshift programs would not be as effective a more unified platform for employee wellness, so human resource directors, wellness directors, and other leaders came together to create the WOW! program.

“In the beginning, the idea was how can we get more of our associates to take advantage of our benefits program, prenatal care, regular doctor visits, develop relationships to get ahead of chronic diseases or anything hereditary,” Scavona tells Senior Housing News. “[It was about] really getting them to understand what is whole-person wellness, and what does it look like?”

Some early efforts included hosting lunch-and-learns to inform people about wellness and the ways Asbury could help support them in improving wellness, and then providing resources and incentive programs to take advantage of them, Scavona explains. The exact component of WOW! differed to meet the needs of each individual Asbury community, but the general framework remained consistent.

Inverness Village associates take part in the WOW! Program's 'Great Race' event.

Inverness Village associates take part in the WOW! Program’s ‘Great Race’ event.

While the program was deemed successful, an evolution occurred more recently at Inverness, when Scavona and her colleagues asked themselves some hard questions about how to take participation to the next level.

“We started to recognize that we have may incentive programs in place, a fitness program, degreed professionals ready to do quarterly fitness assessments, blood work and all sorts of different things to let them know what they’re at risk for, and we’re paying them to be a part of it or giving it away for free—but there were still barriers in their own home that kept [employees] from doing anything extra,” she says. “It kind of came up and smacked us in the face that we need to address the hierarchy of needs first.”

In other words, if an associate is struggling to pay the electric bill or put food on the table or is receiving calls from creditors at work, that person probably is not going to be interested in taking a fitness class between shifts. So, the WOW! program evolved to offer of this block-and-tackle support for employees, and in some cases, this has meant providing highly tailored support for a person’s specific circumstances.

For example, Inverness team members went to local churches and collected donated furniture to help out a mother going through hard times, Scavona says. Other forms of support have included cooking and serving food at funeral services for employees who have lost loved ones, helping people put together budgets and savings plans, and assisting people navigate the health care system if they or a loved one is experiencing a health event.

“Sometimes it’s just about one person, what can we do, and sometimes the program has a larger net,” Scavona says.

Regardless of how wide or narrow the approach, the WOW! program has expanded its mission with the idea that wellness only can be achieved by looking more holistically at employees’ lives.

“They are not just an associate for eight hours, they’re an associate for 24,” Scavona says. “How are we supporing them not only for work hours but the rest of the time?”

Boosting morale

The payoffs of this approach are palpable. About 1,100 Asbury associates, or 44% of the whole workforce, participate in WOW!, and Inverness is beating that percentage is some areas. The number of people participating in quarterly health assessments has “jumped dramatically” and now is more than 50%, according to Scavona. Associate satisfaction scores also have been going up steadily.

“The more robust and integrated and intentional our wellness programs for associates become, our numbers increase on associate satisfaction,” Scavona says.

WOW! also provides a valuable recruitment tool, as the wellness philosophy comes into play in the hiring process.

“We have very intentional interview and orientation processes, our wellness culture is woven into that,” Scavona says. At a time when some senior living providers are competing against the likes of Chick-Fil-A and Starbucks for workers, it’s a valuable differentiator to be able to offer the prospect of whole-person support rather than simply a paycheck and perhaps benefits, she adds.

Asbury continues to grow the program even as it figures costs to be $1.74 per employee each month, or just over $15,000 a quarter. But WOW! drives bottom-line results in a variety of ways, not only in terms of worker recruitment and retention, but in lowering health care costs by reducing insurance risk and by improving resident wellness and satisfaction.

“Resident and associate well being are so intertwined,” Scavona says.

Tips for success

As WOW! evolved to consider associates’ whole lives, it had to go from being a more siloed effort to one that had participation and buy-in from the whole organization, Scavona says.

“In the early stages, because it was a human resources/well director-driven program, I think it was ‘HR/Wellness Show,’” she says. “Once we realized there were so many other touchpoints, once we broadened out what wellness was for our community, then it became everybody’s project.”

An important strategy at Inverness has been to think about how wellness goals can align with each department’s individual objectives, and then work with those departments to take ownership over projects on a quarterly basis.

For instance, the community’s chaplain does a “mind, body, spirit” program, in which associates built their own altar at home, took a photo of it, and wrote a description about what the altar meant to them. The safety team takes a quarter in which they have a “safety fair”—everyone dresses up for Halloween and does continuing education about safety throughout the community. And the facilities director has done “all sorts of innovative and crazy things,” Scavona says, including spearheading a food drive challenge in which associates hike up a hill with 20 pounds of food on their backs.

“When you talk to other departments, partner and collaborate rather than competing for resources and trying to create something on top of something else,” she says. “Everybody has to own the process because wellness is everywhere.”

Written by Tim Mullaney