We’ve come a long way in a generation regarding wellness and healthcare; moving the needle, so to speak, from “well enough to drag yourself to work” to building a workforce (and a workplace) that is more focused on safety, behavioral health, and mitigating stress. The objective, of course, is to increase productivity, prevent expensive diseases, and be able to live longer healthier lives.
Wellness is an enormous industry. In 2022, the global wellness marketplace was $4.4 trillion and is expected to grow to $7 trillion by 2025, according to the Global Wellness Institute. Wellness is a broad term, encompassing nutrition, mental and physical health, physical activity, traditional healthcare as well as items we don’t automatically consider wellness, like wellness tourism, spas, and even wellness real estate.
The COVID-19 pandemic helped to bring wellness center stage, as communities, healthcare institutions, and businesses grappled with ways to cope with isolation, remote working, and massive unemployment during the shutdown. As a result, our healthcare system, after enduring months of personal work stress, overpopulated hospitals, and shortages in everything has forever been transformed in the aftermath.
“We learned from the pandemic that there is a problem with health equity in our population,” notes Dr. Hillary Cohen, senior vice president of medical affairs for Englewood Health. “Access to a doctor is only part of an answer. We found that some people lack trust in the system, or have financial, language, or educational barriers keeping them from accessing healthcare.”
For example, Dr. Cohen cites the lack of transportation and the rising cost of prescriptions such as insulin as just a few of the troubling reasons why some people are not receiving care or managing their health maintenance.
“We learned that we need more investment in behavioral health services, as well as to provide greater access to education, and certainly more outreach to gain a better understanding of our communities,” she notes.
With the assistance of data learned from the 2022 Community Health Needs Assessment, a collaborative project with all seven Bergen County acute care facilities, Bergen County Health Services, and the Community Health Improvement Partnership, Englewood Health is investing in many improvements to its system. In addition to embedding more social workers into patient areas, the organization has established tighter connections to area schools, local health officials, and the geriatric population. In early 2023, Englewood Health also opened the Shirvan Family Live Well Center in downtown Englewood to offer the community easy access to programs and education on everything from healthy eating and stress reduction to developing healthy lifestyles. “Our goal is to improve our healthcare system by helping to create a healthy community,” notes Dr. Cohen.
Throughout the state, other healthcare systems are also working hard to turn wellness into a strategic way to improve their business, their employees, and the communities they serve post-Covid.
“Pre-Covid, many people separated healthcare and wellness as two [disparate] initiatives,” notes Barbara Mintz, MS, RD, system senior vice president, social impact and community investment for RWJBarnabas Health. “During the pandemic, there was tremendous anxiety among employees, employers, and the community at large. Bad habits were formed from living in isolation and working remotely if you were working at all,” she recalls. “Our employees, particularly bedside workers – including the nurses and doctors – went through hell.”
Like many organizations, RWJBarnabas had to pivot. “Healthcare workers became burned out. People needed support. They also need to get back into self-care,” Mintz says, noting that the hospital system worked on many levels to inject quality-of-life improvements for employees. Efforts like delivering food to the workplace were a start, but the organization has implemented many other initiatives.
“We encourage people to take short ten-minute breaks for personal time to regain their balance. That might be handling a personal matter, going outside for fresh air, or simply clearing their head for a moment,” Mintz adds. RWJBarnabas also created virtual programs that employees may access at any time. Topics range from healthy lifestyles and developing healthy eating habits to dealing with stress. “We needed to go virtual to reach our 24/7 workplace. Reaching people with different schedules was critical,” Mintz says, adding that the content for the programs focused on “educating staff on how to become and stay healthy.”
Englewood Health and RWJBarnabas Health are deeply committed to addressing healthy living issues in their communities. At RWJBarnabas, COVID-19 brought a food insecurity issue to light in places like Newark and surrounding communities. To help address the need not just for food, but for healthy food, RWJBarnabas teamed up with a nonprofit called The Common Market, an organization that connects local farmers to food pantries and businesses. Together, they are providing fresh food options to hungry communities in need.
RWJBarnabas is also reaching out to area schools, offering programs on healthy food choices as well as providing vaccines and health screenings. “We know that everything is connected; if we build a healthier community, we can also create a healthier workforce,” Mintz says.
A true believer in the benefits of a healthier lifestyle, Mintz offers employers some practical advice on what should be included in their internal wellness programs.
“Business owners and management should support their employees’ efforts to create healthier lifestyles in both policy and practice. Little changes, like removing junk from vending machines and offering healthier offerings, are a start. Firms that provide food or offer delivered meals as a stress relief should consider fresh items in place of the pizza and fast-food options,” she says, noting that it sends a mixed message. “Companies should incentivize good choices, too, such as offering discounts for gym memberships, offering mental health programs like stress management or classes in healthy food preparation.”
Admitting that there is a commercial detriment today to making healthy choices, Mintz suggests that businesses be inspired – even if budgets are stretched – to keep their employees healthy by buying local, supporting local growers, restaurants, and manufacturers that offer healthy choices, and building a healthy community by hiring locally.
“We are in the business of keeping people healthy. To create healthier, more sustainable communities, we need to teach healthier behaviors and provide people with access to better health choices,” she concludes.
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