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Taking Wellness to the Next Level

Whether a company is using a single vendor or multiple vendors, there's "a huge need" for them to integrate physical and mental well-being into its wellness offerings, experts say.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013
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Do wellness centers improve one's overall quality of life?

Well, according to the findings of one recent study, that depends greatly on whether employees use the resources available to them -- and even then, may not always lead to the desired results in certain QOL areas.

In a paper published in the May/June edition of the American Journal of Health Promotion, researchers at the Mayo Clinic found people who use wellness centers the most were most likely to experience an increase in their physical QOL scores (with the percentage among this segment rising from 59.4 percent to 80.4 percent). There was no improvement in the physical quality-of-life scores among those using the centers the least. (Low users visited centers once every two weeks while high users visited them two or three times a week.)

The researchers, however, found that mental health was another story.

According to the study, mental QOL measures didn't change significantly for high users and declined for those who were low users, with the percentage of those reporting a positive mental QOL decreasing from 51.4 percent to 34.5 percent.

Taken together, the researchers wrote, "these findings suggest that the use of a wellness center can improve physical health and has limited or no effect on maintaining mental health."

Dr. Matthew Clark, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the Mayo Clinic and the lead author of the study, suggests the findings point to the need for companies to take a more holistic view of their wellness initiatives.

"If we're going to have a wellness center," he says, "we should look at whether it actually improves your quality of life, including mental quality of life." Too often, he says, employers focus on physical activities, such as walking programs and exercise programs, but overlook other domains, such as mental well-being.

The researchers said they weren't surprised to see low mental-health scores, given that most of the wellness programs offered by the centers being studied offered a range of programs (including those aimed at improving mental well-being), but primarily focused on fitness.

Wellness experts point out that this is pretty typical.

"The definition for wellness is clearly being broadened, but mental health continues to be a forgotten component of the package," explains Michele Dodds, vice president of health and wellness at ComPsych, a Chicago-based employee assistance program.

Frequently, Dodds says, wellness programs aren't being connected to traditional EAP benefits, including mental health. "There's a huge value in connecting these pieces," given the link between stress and well-being.

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She notes that employers are just beginning to recognize this point.

Whether a company is using a single vendor or multiple vendors, Dodds says, there's a huge need for them to integrate physical and mental well-being. "From the employees' perspective, there seems to be too many pieces -- so employers need to find effective ways to link and integrate them," she says.

Employers also have to do a better job communicating the scope of everything that's being offered, Dodds adds. "Many employees are just trying to get through the day and they're not going to notice everything their employers are offering them."

Tom Emerick, president of Emerick Consulting in Fayetteville, Ark., agrees employers need to look at the full picture when it comes to wellness. But he also suggests that those staffing these facilities have to do a better job when it comes to making referrals.

"If someone is being referred, are they being referred to the right doctor?" Emerick asks. "I've visited a lot of centers and I haven't found one that even [pretends to do this well]."

If they're not already doing so, Emerick says employers should be holding these centers accountable for the referrals they're making.

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