Wellness as a philosophy: How a health center embraced true well-being

The most important step is meeting people where they are on a continuum of well-being.

By Jon Minnick      
Work life balance vector concept. Business man meditating yoga pose holds laptop in hand. Half of male character choosing healthy relax, leisure, other one career. Dividing office vs home illustration

Smart organizations are open to creating something new to help improve their company culture and increase retention and overall well-being That’s exactly what Rush University Medical Center did and shared their story at Ragan’s first Workplace Wellness Conference.

A center for clinical wellness

Rush University Medical Center is comprised of three hospitals, a university, a provider network and outpatient sites in Chicagoland. The organization believes that advances in quality patient care are directly tied to the well-being and vitality of researchers, providers, students and staff, who in turn feel burnt out, are distressed about decisions they had to make for their patients and struggling with issues of compassion. So in 2018, Rush developed a wellness office and recruited Chief Wellness Officer Dr. Bryant Adibe, who began to develop a dedicated center for employee wellness onsite.

“To be successful, wellness really needs to become a philosophy. All of you know this. This is a part of the work you’ve been doing. It needs to be a value to be successful,” said Dr. Sheila Dowd, associate professor and medical director for the Center for Clinical Wellness at Rush. “We firmly believe that any advance we’re going to have in patient care is very closely tied to how we’re treating our staff, our employees, our physicians, our learners and our researchers.”

The goals for Rush’s Center of Clinical Wellness included creating a culture of wellness and a healing environment, promoting access to mental health services, providing a brief escape from the busy medical center and using data and research to enhance support for well-being in the health care community.

Opened in July 2020, the Center of Clinical Wellness serves Rush employees, students and staff with services that include counseling, coaching and other wellness-related services, staffed by an interdisciplinary team of health care professionals. In its first year, it enrolled 1,100 clients and now averages around 369 appointments monthly, mostly counseling.

The center itself includes natural elements like live plants and a waterfall, digital sunroofs to simulate sun movement and soothing music piped throughout the center. Acoustic foamed walls, an independent medical record system, and seven-foot-tall partitions in the waiting room enhance privacy, while one-way traffic flow helps visitors avoid running across colleagues in the center.

“We have to recognize that these are our colleagues too,” explained Dowd.

Better wellness through better communication

Rush is always listening to its stakeholders, gathering feedback or conducting focus groups to better understand what their needs are.

“Everyone’s wellness journey is unique,” explained Dowd. “Those who are coping well might just want to expand their wellness efforts. But then there are others who feel more in that transformative phase, and they say we want to be a champion. ‘We want to help our colleagues.’ … And then others just needed that emotional distress psychotherapy one-on-one.”

Rush needed to be careful about how they were communicating these wellness resources. People in emotional distress needed more support from colleagues. They needed better work conditions. They needed a break. So Rush learned early on that they needed to emphasize this spectrum in all of their communications and tailor the interventions across the medical center to address each part of this continuum.

“You’re going in and out of these (areas of distress), and all of our wellness efforts have to recognize this. For those people who are feeling in great distress … and now we’re talking about doing yoga or relaxation or meditation, we’ve missed the mark,” added Dowd. “They might need more cognitive behavioral therapy. So when you’re sending out these mass emails and people are reading yoga, they’re going to get frustrated, they’re going to be more irritated they’re going to be upset.”

Campus-wide wellness initiatives

In addition to the center, campus-wide initiatives were also implemented, including mental health first aid training, workshops and Lunch & Learn programs, and self-care/wellness toolkits. Rush also launched Wellness Pathways, which offers 24/7 support with a behavioral health professional, as well as established care at the Center for Clinical Wellness. This program helps individuals schedule an appointment, get help when feeling overwhelmed and unsure what to do, get immediate support by phone or text, and emergency help in a crisis situation. But communicating these wellness initiatives would be key to their success.

“We needed to ramp up our communication and be creative,” added Dowd. “The mass mailings are great, but they don’t always work. People don’t have time to read them. One simple name change or one shift would derail our message. So we developed the Rush Wellness News. Every month it just kind of highlights people. We try to engage with our staff and with our employees, giving them information that they could save or tab to look at later.”

Rush tailored their messaging to where recipients were on that continuum while really being aware of protecting staff confidentiality. They also kept an eye out for people who were slipping through the cracks and might not get any of the messaging in order to develop very clear wellness pathways for those individuals to get the wellness help they need.

While this is just a snapshot of what Rush has been able to accomplish over the last few years, they have clearly listened to their staff and built out, and continues to build out, the resources needed to address the wellbeing of their stakeholders and, in turn, their patients.