Business of Well-being

Top Wellness Leader, Jesse Gavin Shares Deep Insights into Corporate Wellness Transformation for Leaders

Corporate Wellness

Workplace wellness has taken a new dimension in the last few years, with many business leaders and managers investing in the health of their workforce to create a healthier workplace. This paradigm shift has led to significant transformation in employee health and business success in many organizations. Corporate wellness programs have become an essential component of organizational strategy, aimed at enhancing employee well-being, reducing healthcare costs, and improving overall productivity.

Corporate Wellness Magazine recently had a chat with Jesse Gavin, one of the top leaders in the corporate wellness industry and Senior Wellness Officer at Baylor College of Medicine, who shares deep insights into building a successful corporate wellness model and transforming organizational culture to promote employee wellbeing and health.

Jesse Gavin, Well-being Officer, Baylor College of Medicine

Can you tell us about yourself and your journey in the corporate wellness industry?

I grew up in a small farm town in Southwestern Illinois until I was 11 when my family moved to Texas, and I have lived here ever since. Growing up in a small town gave me a great sense of community. A distinct memory of that time is my grandpa waving to all the cars passing by as we drove into town and saying, “there’s old Bill” or “hello Tim”. In my young mind, he seemed to know everyone. My brother and I grew up with a single mom who showed resiliency and did everything she could to ensure we both thrived. People say our past helps shape our future, and I truly believe my past taught me empathy and set me up to work in health promotion/public health.

Throughout high school, I wanted to become a veterinarian, and I carried that through when starting college, but I soon realized I would rather work with people. I transitioned my focus to wanting to become a biology teacher/football coach but soon chose physical therapy as a career path. As you can see, my career path was the same as most people trying to decide what they wanted to do for the next 40+ years; I had no idea. As part of the physical therapy program at the University of Houston Clear Lake, we had to take a Health Promotion course. At the time this course was taught by someone who also worked as the Wellness Director for Johnson Space Center (NASA). The course was after her workday, and she made the position sound fun and exciting. Instead of working with people after an accident, what if I could help prevent the accident from happening? I was sold, and when she asked if anyone was interested in interning at the wellness center, I jumped at the opportunity. I suppose you can say the rest is history. I have worked in corporate wellness or a related field since then, working with organizations such as British Petroleum (BP), Shell Oil, and a wellness vendor named Personalized Prevention, which allowed me to travel and work with different organizations.  

When I started at Baylor College of Medicine in 2014, I never imagined I would be where I am now. I am working on my doctorate in Public Health and still live in the Clear Lake area, south of Houston, with my wife and our fur babies, Lilo (cat) and Minnie (black lab).    

As the Well-Being Officer at Baylor College of Medicine (BCM), tell us about some of the work you do.

My primary focus as the Well-Being Officer at Baylor College of Medicine is to create an environment and resources to help our community thrive professionally and personally. To accomplish this goal, I work with senior leadership, multiple internal departments, and external partners to create data-driven approaches to help improve the human health of our workforce so that they can do the same for the local, national and global community. Baylor College of Medicine is a multi-faceted organization specializing in education, research, and healthcare. These mission areas and the employees making them successful have individual and distinct needs so my job is to determine what those needs are so we can address them effectively.

My current role is about 40% administrative meetings and coordination, 30% creative, and 30% customer service and relationship building.  

What changed regarding the culture of wellness at BCM in the last 10 years since you began?  

I was the first full-time employee hired to completely focus on improving the well-being of our community. Before 2014, many departments had implemented siloed initiatives; even Human Resources had tried smaller efforts like “Wellness Wednesdays.”  

My role was part of a larger initiative to expand the wellness program, including adding a wellness portal and biometric screenings. When the program started, we had a team of benefits employees who also worked on wellness. Since 2014, we have centralized many of the college's well-being efforts and expanded our team to 8. We now manage our student wellness program, BCM LIFE, onsite well-being center, recognition and appreciation, and other services dedicated to improving well-being. Through the combined efforts of BCM Well-Being and our partners, individual health and well-being is now a primary focus within the college.  

Why do you think many corporate wellness programs fail?

No corporate wellness program that is created to improve health and well-being has failed, even if they have not achieved the outcomes they had originally hoped for. However, many organizations and well-being practitioners do not give their programs enough time to produce the intended outcomes, and the initiatives/outcomes they choose to look at are not aligned. There are a lot of variables involved in eliciting behavior change, one of the more complex ones being that we are dealing with individuals. It takes building trust and a scientific approach to create a successful program, but the definition of success varies based on the organization and program.  

Again, when dealing with individuals there are multiple agendas, and each one might define success differently. If a corporate wellness program helps save one life, then the entire program is worth it. I have witnessed this and other positive organizational and individual health results.  

How do you customize your wellness programs to meet the specific needs of different organizations?

I firmly believe that knowledge is power and cannot be truer with corporate wellness. There are a lot of discussions on who should manage wellness programs. Should it be within Human Resources, its own department, or possibly leadership? Being under the umbrella of Human Resources provides our well-being department with many advantages, including access to data and internal partnerships.  

We use aggregate data from sources like biometric screenings, our wellness portal vendor, claims, pharmacy data, etc. but we also use direct feedback that we receive daily through emails or yearly through our wellness program survey. We aim to create resources that people need based on data and behavior change approaches and create fun and exciting initiatives that people want to join.  

What role does technology play in your wellness programs?

I believe utilizing technology when implementing a wellness program has many benefits. Technology can help expand the reach of a wellness program. It can help people access global programs they might not otherwise be able to participate in. Second, using technology allows multiple integrations into the program and can increase the opportunities for individualization. Vitality’s reporting capabilities allow BCM BeWell to focus our efforts on the buildings and staff that need our assistance. We can download daily, monthly, quarterly, and yearly reports showing participation and health trends. Partnering with a wellness platform partner allows BCM Well-Being to implement challenges, customize communication materials, and run interventions for all levels of participants regardless of where they are on their health journey.  

Third, data collection and analysis are much faster and timelier when using technology. Last, it makes managing a program significantly easier from an administration standpoint. With the assistance of our wellness portal, participants can link several different fitness devices (Fitbit, Garmin, Nike+, Apple Health, Map My Fitness, and more) to the portal and earn points equate to bucks to spend in an online mall. Additionally, the portal allows BCM Well-Being to upload points for employer-run inventions and allows us to incorporate various departments and vendors into the wellness program, including retirement, internal presentations, Employee Assistance Program, and United Healthcare.

How do you measure the success and effectiveness of your wellness programs?

Our program measures success and effectiveness in many ways but we also know that providing resources to improve the health and well-being of our workforce is the right thing to do. We are involved in improving human health, so why wouldn’t we do this for our internal community? Our program uses data provided by our wellness platform vendor to show direct and indirect savings based on increased engagement in the program. We monitor risk trends and the benefits of engagement in preventative screenings, track satisfaction through our yearly surveys, and we can highlight various awards won in organizational well-being to gauge the success of our program. Baylor College of Medicine has won numerous awards for its well-being program since 2014, including the 2018 WELCOA Well Workplace Award, 2019 C. Everett Koop Award Winner, 2023 Koop Award Honorable Mention, and is routinely among the nation’s Healthiest 100 organizations.

Can you share some success stories or case studies from organizations you have helped build their wellness programs?

Although I truly believe behavior change can only be accomplished by an individual's determination and willingness, I am always amazed when people thank our team and our program for helping them along the way. As a workplace well-being program, we can provide the resources and initiatives to assist with success, but it is up to the individual to put in the effort and take the next step.  

Since the program's inception, we’ve received numerous emails about employees improving their health, discovering a pending condition that could be cared for before it became more serious, and taking better care of themselves in general. As I mentioned, we want individual health and well-being to be at the forefront and realize that our health can impact every aspect of our day. Our population is very altruistic and puts all its energy into others in the workplace, whether teaching/training, practicing medicine, or conducting groundbreaking research that could save future lives. We must provide avenues for them to take care of themselves as well. A recent success story, also used in an award application, greatly impacted me and shows the importance of early detection and prevention.  

“I have participated in the program since coming to Baylor in 2020. In May, I had a physical with my primary doctor, and my white blood count was elevated to 29,000. My doctor wanted to re-check the test, but I got busy and forgot. Luckily, BeWell hosted a screening the following month. BeWell’s screening includes multiple tests, one of which is LDH (lactate dehydrogenase). The result was 450 – double the normal value. I called my doctor, got more tests done and within a week, I was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia. This diagnosis was very early, thanks to BeWell. I started taking a pill once daily, which is better than traditional chemotherapy.  

My labs were normal within a month and seem to be in complete remission. In retrospect, my cancer was starting to accelerate, and my kidneys showed early signs of failure. Once on treatment, I felt my energy return immediately, which I thought was decreasing due to age. Happily, I managed to carry my three kids through Disney’s Epcot while on treatment. This would not have been possible without an early diagnosis and being relatively asymptomatic.  

The BCM BeWell program greatly impacted my health and life. It has helped me stay in shape by encouraging physical activity and healthy eating through the wellness portal app and Weight Watchers. As I approach 50 in May 2024, I’ve lost 25 pounds in a year. My wife has also benefited from the program. I am so grateful for Baylor’s program which has kept me in shape and helped save my life! God works in mysterious ways, and in this case, we think He used this program to keep me around a little longer to be with my family. Thank you!”

What are some common challenges companies face when implementing wellness programs, and how would you help them overcome these challenges?

One of the biggest challenges for organizations is the difference between expectations and the reality of behavior change. These changes take trust and time. I have seen certain research articles that try to measure changes within six months, or they reference that individuals make changes during an initiative but then revert to older habits. Change is a process and can be circular. If all health outcomes consistently trended positively, the health and well-being issues organizations and individuals currently face would have been solved long ago. If knowledge and intention were the only factors contributing to behavior change, it would be much easier to help people make these changes. In 2024, most people know what they should be doing, but there are many reasons why we do not practice these behaviors regularly, including me.  

Second, I believe that creating a “culture of wellness” takes structural changes and changes to the perception of all employees. Within an organization with a set way of working and daily norms, it is difficult to enact change to the degree needed to create a culture that puts the workforce's well-being at the top of their priorities and company values.  

What strategies do you use to encourage employee participation in wellness programs?

We also create resources and initiatives based on what our workforce needs and what they want. We hope that individuals will want to participate if we truly combine these to the best of our capabilities. However, as I mentioned earlier, knowing what we should be doing to improve our well-being and having the best intentions does not always lead to long-term behavior change.  

There are multiple debates within the corporate wellness sector about using incentives. I believe incentives can be useful to help someone start new behaviors and continue doing them over time, although they are typically doing it for the reward, they are still doing it and my hope is that over time it will become habitual. Many public health professionals know that the best way to create lasting behavior change is for people to internalize the action to do it for the right reason and not just to get an extrinsic stimulus or reward. As young children, most of our parents allowed us to do chores. While their hope is to instill a value system and hard work in their children, they are probably initially doing the chores because they are rewarded. Again, behavior change takes time, and many continuing variables are involved. Even though people might initially participate due to the incentives, they will begin to internalize these behaviors over time. Incentives are also not the best to create long-term behavior change. However, incentives can be like adrenaline or caffeine. A little bit might work initially but people eventually want more.  

While Baylor College of Medicine does utilize incentives, we also try to offer fun and exciting ways to enhance health and well-being. People do not need incentives to attend these events or take part in them because it is something they want to do. Following the chores analogy, children typically receive rewards or an allowance because it is something they do not want to do. We are trained as small children regarding this concept, and as we age, we tend to understand that rewards are typically given when it is for something that takes time or because it is not something a person would inherently want to do. For example, BCM Well-Being brings therapy pets onsite to decrease stress and allow time for our employees and students to connect. We do not have to get an incentive for people to pet the dogs, it is inherently something most people want to do. However, taking time to participate in an online course, health risk assessment, or biometric screening may be a little different.  

How do your programs address mental health and stress management in the workplace?

Through our various resources and initiatives, BCM Well-Being tries to enhance knowledge, resource awareness, access to care, increase prevention, and condition management in all aspects of well-being. For mental health specifically, known as Healthy Mind, we have taken multiple steps within Baylor College of Medicine to address this growing global concern.  

In January 2023, Baylor College of Medicine transitioned to a new Employee Assistance Program, Optum EAP, to provide enhanced resources and access to care. Optum EAP offers 24/7/365 in-the-moment phone and online support and various online tools and resources to increase knowledge and awareness. Aside from Optum EAP, partnerships with the Institute for Spirituality and Health and our internal psychiatry department have allowed BCM Well-Being to offer courses and mindfulness-related presentations. These are just a few examples of the many resources we provide. BCM Well-Being continuously works with leadership to discuss our current climate and how Baylor College of Medicine can continuously improve our efforts to create an environment that encourages thriving and growth.  

What are some current trends in corporate wellness that organizations should be aware of?

One of the trends healthcare practitioners should look forward to is a natural one that is starting to occur now. Younger individuals started their careers in well-being-friendly organizations. Those individuals are becoming senior leaders or starting their own companies, so they know the benefits these programs can bring to their populations. To create a wellness culture, it starts from the top down and creates policies and procedures that prioritize well-being. Creating these from the beginning is easier than changing ones that have existed for many years.  

Another trend that can help is the use of artificial intelligence (AI). I know there are mixed feelings about AI, but for increasing health and well-being, AI can provide the data and technology that could make behavioral change easier.  

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted corporate wellness programs, and what changes have you seen in employer and employee needs?

One of the primary ways COVID-19 impacted wellness programs is by increasing the use of technology to engage employees in new ways. Despite the cancellation of onsite activities, BCM BeWell enhanced virtual offerings. Educational sessions migrated to Zoom and other web-based platforms, which remains a continued practice for serving our remote workers. Because most of the college’s well-being resources can be accessed virtually, this practice allows employees to continue participating in activities. When appropriate and possible, Baylor remains flexible to meet the needs of employees and participants. We are fortunate that we have been able to return to hosting onsite events to give employees a chance to connect with their peers.  

Additionally, I think COVID-19 made people realize the importance of preventative medicine and reducing their risk. There was a stark differential in the populations impacted by COVID-19. People worldwide started looking fresh at their health and the importance of well-being.
What do you see as the future of corporate wellness, and how are you helping BCM prepare for it?

I believe the value of corporate wellness will become increasingly apparent. Employees want more than just a paycheck from their employer, they want to feel valued and feel the organization they choose to share their skills and experience with will help them feel enriched. Standardization on implementing corporate wellness programs and effective ways to produce outcomes will become readily available. The research is out there but it has not become readily available to decision-makers yet.  

What advice would you give to a company just starting to develop a corporate wellness program?

If a company is starting a wellness program, I would suggest starting with the policies and daily practices/procedures that create the company’s current climate. I heard a saying a long time ago that companies implement programs when the opposite is true. For example, a company might implement a sensitivity training program because of incidents, or a company might implement a psychological safety program because employees do not feel like they can be their true selves at work. This might sound counterintuitive because if a company truly acted with the well-being of their employees as the number one priority, then health promotion, specifically corporate wellness, would not exist. However, we are dealing with people and people have different agendas.  

If this is impossible, I would always begin by assessing the population to determine their needs and wants. I would also determine the major goals and objectives for the program. How is the program and the individuals managing it being measured? Again, knowledge is power, and having all the data possible will help determine where to begin.  

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