Business of Well-being

A Look Into MD Anderson Cancer Center's Wellness Program ~ An Employer Case Study

A Look Into MD Anderson Cancer Center's Wellness Program ~ An Employer Case Study

In 1976 Bill Baun was flat on his back, staring at a brick wall outside a hospital room. Six months later he was in a full body cast. A youth activities director at a church in Dallas, he had been rear-ended at an intersection. "Across the hall I could see a young man who had lost both legs in a motorcycle accident. I realized I was really lucky.

I decided I would get up and walk again, and that I was going to help others not as lucky. "Today Bill is Manager of Employee Wellness Programs at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where he has been since 1999. MD Anderson is an 18,000 employee hospital with the mission "to eliminate cancer in Texas, the nation, and the world," as its website tells us.

"We're a cancer center," said Bill, "and the high stress of cancer is part of our business-our clinicians must deal with this stress every day. At the same time, we're a hospital, so we're a wellness culture by nature."

A Wellness Culture within Each Department

Senior management, from Bill's point of view, is fully committed to wellness and prevention. "Leadership gives people the opportunity to be well. Patients as well as employees benefit as they learn to be cancer survivors. We are all human-many employees face the challenge of weight loss, and obesity is a huge factor for some cancers. So when a staff member can put a hand on a patient's shoulder and say 'I've been there, too-I lost 40 pounds last year,' it can make a difference."

"We work to set up a wellness culture within each department," said Bill. "Departmental leadership accepts responsibility for their staff members' wellness and we encourage the whole team to acquire the same knowledge, skills, and commitment. Everybody makes changes together."  The coaches work to get leadership support, and usually it's a manager who requests help for a team.  

"But when a manager is not ready, the workforce team may invite us in and drive the program." About three years ago we had a new coach who was a natural at small group work, and he set up a pilot intervention called 'Simple Change.'  People had been calling him for individual coaching, and when he met with them, friends would want to join the coaching session.

'Simple Change' became a very successful small group change program where participants would get together and decide on their rules of engagement, meet weekly, and support each other in behavior change. We found that 80 percent of them were successful in what they chose to do, and 40 percent of the groups stayed together."

Wellness is All About Relationships

When Bill left his body cast behind in 1977, he decided to get a Master's degree in exercise science-a brand new field at the time-from the University of North Texas in Denton. In 1981 he joined Tenneco, in Houston, Texas, which had set up one of the country's first corporate fitness centers, free for every employee. "Tenneco was an oil conglomerate and oil was over $70 a barrel, so they decided to spend it on the health of their 101,000 employees worldwide.  

I started up 25 fitness and wellness programs around the world and managed the corporate headquarter center for 16 years-it was a blast, a lot of fun." Under Bill's direction, Tenneco was one of the first worksite programs to receive the C. Everett Koop Health Project Award."At Tenneco," said Bill, "I learned how to work my way through the system and spot ways to build relationships-wellness is all about relationships, especially with leaders, and this is even more important in a big system."  

Soon after he and a colleague had published the "Health Promotion Source Book for Small Businesses," MD Anderson hired him as a 'health and productivity consultant.' "They had just started their wellness program for patients, and recognized the need to have healthy employees. Like most people they thought about wellness and prevention as programs and activities like classes and fitness centers." But Bill believes that the heart of worksite wellness is not so much programs as changing the culture and getting and maintaining management support.

Wellness Works When it's "In Your Face"

Bill began at MD Anderson's water coolers, putting up signs and quick tips about wellness, and quickly got at least 50 departments to be 'water cooler program pilots.'  "It was just me for one or two years and I knew that wellness works when it's in your face," he said. "If it's not in your face, it tends to get forgotten. It's about perseverance and habits."

Today Anderson's wellness coaches have a slogan: "We make house calls," and they are all called 'Coach.' "In a hierarchical place like this, Manager Bill would be threatening.  People see me and they say, 'You're the coach, aren't you?' Coach Bill has an easy and unthreatening ring to it, better than 'personal trainer' or 'counselor.'  

If you reach Bill's voice mail you'll hear, "Hi, this is Bill, your wellness coach."  His email signature ends, "Be well." The MD Anderson wellness model relies on its internal staff to teach, facilitate support groups, and coach. Along with his four fellow coaches, Bill stays intimately involved with worksite wellness for MD Anderson employees. Their only outside vendors are MediFit Corporate Services, who run their fitness center; Weight Watchers; and several local massage therapists.

Recently they've been focused on changing the work environment. When the vending machine contractor refused to switch to healthier choices, they found a new vendor willing to make those changes. Unhealthy foods in vending machines are now priced higher.

Lactation Rooms and Stress-buster Stations

When a high-stressed physician in the palliative care unit said, "If we just had an elliptical machine I could use for five minutes that would break my stress level," Bill arranged for an elliptical to be nearby. The hospital now has stress buster stations - an elliptical, a band chair for strength training, and a PreCor stretch trainer to increase flexibility and promote relaxation, which, Bill said, "takes up a small space and costs only $600."

Almost seventy percent of Anderson's employees are female and at least 60 percent are in their childbearing years. Bill had learned at Tenneco the importance of lactation rooms and they now have 10 of these serving between 225 - 275 mothers each week. "They get companionship, they share their stories, and they feel better-so they get back to work faster, and their babies are healthier."

Education and Social Networking Connections

In addition to department-specific programs, Anderson's coaches offer hospital-wide courses. Several of the new courses for 2011 will include familiar topics like meditation and calming the mind, along with Attitude, the Difference Maker; Put the Brakes on Stress!; and Tickling the Funny Bone.When asked about social media and wellness, Bill said, "It's a great way for people to engage each other, but not everybody is computer literate or has time to be on a computer, or a cell phone.  

In some cases you can be fired if you're caught surfing on a computer at work. On line programming does not work for everyone. Wellness portals and websites have a role in wellness, but they have yet to replace the value of face-to-face coaching, counseling or bonding in a support group. "People can be at work up to 12 hours a day. They spend so much time here that their networking with each other is very important.  

Learning to be well and realizing that we don't do this alone is what worksite wellness is all about - it's the social networking connections at work that can make a difference in getting and staying well. "When he's not coaching Anderson employees, said Bill, "I have to practice what I preach. I enjoy what I do at work so it's hard to stop. I'm an avid walker and in-line skater. I do some weights but I like to be outside, chopping down trees, gardening.  

My daily stress relievers are meditation and taking time for myself. Move as much as you can and get outside after work. You can't stop being active just because you get older." He's devoted to health at home and at work. "It becomes a passion, and my reward is doing well."

About the Author

Jane Sherwin is the owner of WordDrive Communications and a professional writer specializing in marketing materials for the healthcare industry. She works with health care clients to transform ideas and rough drafts into powerful communication tools, from newsletters and website copy to annual reports and sales proposals. WordDrive clients range from hospitals and home health agencies to health care consultants and associations.

WordDrive is a business built on more than thirty years of experience in copywriting and healthcare, including twelve with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, a leading national provider of managed health care coverage. To reach Jane and learn more about how she can support your marketing initiatives, contact her at or 617.489.1834. To learn more, visit her website:, where you can sign up for her monthly e-newsletter.

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