For nine years, Angela Berlinger has served as a program coordinator and health coach for the University of Minnesota – Morris (UMM) employee wellness program. Over the course of her tenure at UMM, Berlinger has developed a deep understanding of the barriers that keep employees from achieving overall wellness. She sees that managing day-to-day work/life stress is an underlying factor in making healthy decisions.
“As the health coach, I can talk about being healthy and exercising, but if employees are not able to manage stress day-to-day, they’re not really going to be thinking about going to the gym to exercise and the grocery store to make healthier meal choices,” Berlinger said.
UMM’s wellness program helps faculty and staff improve their overall wellness by providing more than 30 programs that encourage physical activity, nutrition and weight loss. Without a program to address stress management, however, Berlinger worried that they were missing a critical component.
The effects of stress
Stress affects everyone. It spans sectors, income levels and job titles – and its effects are too often overlooked.
Chronic stress – stress that occurs over a prolonged period of time – results when daily stressors are not well-managed. Chronic stress can be a major contributor to health conditions like anxiety, depression, insomnia, muscle pain, obesity and high blood pressure. Chronic stress can even weaken the body’s ability to fight infection, making it more susceptible to a host of other health issues.
Teaching people to manage stress benefits them in personal, practical ways. “If we provide tools for our employees to be successful, it not only helps them at home, but it carries over to work and vice versa,” said Berlinger.
Equipping employees with stress management tools also benefits employers through reduced health care costs, lower rates of absenteeism and a more productive workforce overall.
Addressing stress as a community
After recognizing the impact of stress on UMM faculty and staff, Berlinger faced the challenge of finding the right resources to help address the issue. Her first phone call was to Stevens Community Medical Center (SCMC), with which she had partnered a year earlier to start the employee wellness program’s successful “Renew” weight loss management program.
Berlinger was connected with two SCMC employees, Angelina Lee and Amanda Storey. Storey is a licensed psychologist with SCMC whose passion for creating mental health programs started with an internship at a Department of Veteran’s Affairs inpatient facility. Lee helps local community members manage familial stress through her work as a licensed marriage and family therapist.
Berlinger arranged for Storey to give presentations to UMM employees about using mindfulness strategies to decrease stress. The presentations were such a success that the team immediately went to work designing a longer-term stress management program for UMM faculty and staff. The result is a new “Stress Less” curriculum, developed and written by Storey, that launched in October.
“Stress Less” partnership with Stevens Community Medical Center
The “Stress Less” partnership program debuted this fall at UMM. Over eight weeks, participants will share their own experiences with stress, if they wish, and learn different ways to intervene to decrease stress. Weekly homework assignments will help them put their learning into action. By the end of the course, each participant will have an individualized stress management plan. As part of UMM’s wellness program, the $100 course cost will be fully reimbursed for employees who attend 80 percent of the classes.
Storey hopes this course will equip participants with the understanding and skills they need to combat stress. “When it comes to addressing stress and mental health, one size doesn’t fit all,” she said. “Through this program, we’re helping employees better understand all the different ways stress can impact their lives and how it impacts their health.”
The team is hopeful that the “Stress Less” program is a solution that will work for their unique community. UMM already plans to offer the class again after the new year, and Storey and Lee may eventually adapt the program for other employers in the Morris area.