It’s been said that everything’s bigger in Texas, and by all accounts, Living Well: Make it a Priority lives up to the reputation — in program scope, quality, and effectiveness. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the University of Texas System’s workplace well-being program, serving over 190,000 member employees, retirees, and dependents across the state. There’s a lot going on… and a lot to celebrate, as Rolando Román, Office of Employee Benefits, Manager of Wellness Programs, explains.
“In 2007, we launched this program as part of a suite of employee benefits offered under the University of Texas System umbrella. We created a mission statement and a clearly defined brand. It’s our responsibility to make tools and resources for healthy living available to our members; we offer something for everyone.”
Our mission is to improve the health and well-being of Texans through achieving the optimal performance level of University of Texas System employees', retirees', and dependents' health at all institutions.
With 15 institutions to serve, Rolando and his colleagues intentionally worked to cultivate a strong sense of community. “People spend more time at the workplace than at home; so work can become a place of support.” Good communication is a huge part of their community-building effort.
Each institution has a full-time wellness coordinator and an army of volunteer wellness champions. The System-wide Wellness Committee, including Living Well staffers and institution wellness coordinators, creates a Living Well plan with 1 year of programs and initiatives. Coordinators then spread the word with the help of volunteer wellness champions. “We arm institutions with everything they need to successfully promote wellness resources and programs,” Rolando emphasizes.
System and institution-wide events and initiatives are another way Living Well brings people together. In celebrating Heart Month, for example, the second annual “10/10/10” Heart Walk was a highlight. “On February 10 at 10:00 AM, employees across the state came together as a community to get outside and walk for 10 minutes.” Activities like this foster a feeling of shared purpose around healthy lifestyle habits and build in social support for lasting change.
The Family Cookbook Series stands out as a highly popular community-promoting initiative. Employees submit their favorite family recipes; the Living Well team publishes the recipes in an online format, including tips on healthy portion sizes and substitutions. The digital version is available on the Living Well website, and hard copies are distributed as rewards for wellness challenge participants who achieve specific targets. “People love to share traditions with their families and colleagues. We ask employees to share why the recipe is important to them; many have been handed down through generations,” notes Rolando. “It’s a fun way for employees to connect.”
To reach the University of Texas System’s geographically, ethnically, and generationally diverse population, Living Well offers comprehensive resources and services in a variety of formats:
Notably, the reach of Living Well extends beyond the traditional fitness and nutrition areas, even offering parent and family support through the BCBSTX Healthy Family app and kidshealth.org — as well as community partnerships. The program website also features a crowdsourced list of community gardens and farmers’ markets plus a vetted list of healthy eating apps.
Rolando elaborates: “We touch a lot of people, including kids who grow up, become students, and then employees. We partner with community-based resources to extend our reach and meet the unique needs of each location — this approach has been a big hit.”
At UT Austin, for example, employees can take Ballet Austin classes at a discounted rate and subscribe to a Farm-to-Work fresh produce delivery service. UT Arlington has a financial wellness program and a foam-rolling class. Wellness lunch-and-learns, organic home gardening seminars, walking trails, and even a community garden are examples of UT Rio Grande Valley offerings. The San Antonio campus provides a variety of onsite activity classes: Zumba, yoga, boot camp, marathon training, and more — in addition to a demo kitchen with cooking lessons. And UT Dallas teams participate in the Corporate Challenge, a 10-week Olympic-style physical activity program supporting Special Olympics of Texas — and run by the City of Richardson.
Living Well was established on a solid base of leadership support and a positive workplace culture; both are big parts of the program’s success. Rolando adds: “People are very proud of being an employee here. That sense of pride and camaraderie permeates every location. We have amazing leadership all the way up to Chancellor McRaven.” It’s no wonder employees, retirees, and dependents embrace the wellness program; Living Well is another way this large employer takes care of its people.
Each month, Living Well highlights testimonials from participants throughout the state who’ve improved their lives by adopting healthier habits. Submissions are encouraged by the Wellness Committee and wellness champions at every location.
Stories are shared on the Living Well website and in every newsletter, including not only fitness and weight loss achievements but also accomplishments like tobacco cessation and mental health improvement. Rolando observes, “I believe it empowers people to see someone like them overcoming challenges; it inspires them to embrace the challenge and take action.”
He is especially pleased with Living Well’s approach to funding well-being innovation. The team uses a tobacco premium (rolled out 3 years ago) for local initiatives throughout the organization. “Employers typically use this source of income to pay health claims. But we reinvest 100% of the proceeds into wellness initiatives. Each institution can submit proposals tied to improving health and well-being of members. We distribute half a million dollars on average each year to support local wellness efforts.We’re the only state entity reinvesting funds in this way.”
Each recipient institution must track and evaluate funded initiatives, which are shared with the Living Well team and leadership. Because every initiative is documented in a Living Well database, they’re made available to other institutions; this results in a highly efficient and effective way of spreading successful programming ideas System-wide.
Living Well’s website and promotion materials have a noticeably friendly, no-pressure, we’re here to help feel… and that’s by design, confirms Rolando. “We steered away from incentives; we’d done it in the past… complete an HRA and get a gift card; but not anymore. People don’t appreciate monetary rewards; it becomes an I deserve this experience that promotes entitlement. Our messaging has evolved to we want you to be part of our community; we want you to be part of taking action.”
One change in the way Living Well presented achievement rewards is a big hit. “We wanted people to earn the reward, and to feel pride in accomplishment. For Walktober participants who completed the challenge, we awarded a string bag sporting the program logo; we spent no more than $10 a person, and they loved it.”
Looking ahead, the Living Well team is focused on becoming more strategic about communicating. They’re currently exploring a move toward a segmented approach, with tailored messaging based on gender, age, and region to boost engagement.
From the start, Rolando has been involved in every element of Living Well; he’s seen it evolve over the past 10 years. He is most proud of how driven his team is to constantly evaluate program effectiveness and drive improvement. “We’re not satisfied with the status quo; we push ourselves to be better every day. The better we are, the more lives we’re saving.”