Books@Work Goes to College: Our Wellness Programs with University Staff and Faculty
June 27, 2017 | Maredith Sheridan
Image: Albrecht Durer, Two Hands Holding A Pair of Books, [Public Domain] via WikiArt.org
When we think of workplace wellness, we tend to think of physical health: weight loss challenges, gym reimbursements, on-site flu vaccinations or fitness trackers. There are clear benefits to keeping a workforce healthy and strong, like fewer sick days and lower healthcare costs. But a large research university that recently completed two Books@Work programs sees wellness in a whole new light.
Wellness coordinators at the university believe that physical health is only one of a number of factors that affect employee well-being – and the research backs them up. The National Business Group on Health defines five drivers of wellness in the workplace: physical health, financial security, job satisfaction, emotional health and social connectedness. In an effort to improve community and social well-being among staff and faculty on campus, the university launched their first Books@Work programs.Working in a university setting – especially on such a sprawling campus where employees operate in various capacities in various locations – makes it difficult to establish meaningful relationships with colleagues. “We tend to be kind of siloed in our own departments,” one participant noted. “You get involved in your own little world and your own area of interest.” Another participant from an isolated area of the campus expressed a desire to build friendships but was uncertain how to break the ice without a focal point for discussion. It is “very hard for me to make that connection with someone who’s a stranger,” she explained.
Over the course of three months, Books@Work administered two programs with roughly 20 participants each. Participants included professors, administrators, researchers and more from across the campus and met weekly during lunch to read and discuss five different books. 100% of participants said they would participate in the program again, with one participant noting, “It was about the books, but then it quickly became about so much more.”
So how can reading and discussing literature together lead to improved wellness? The university wellness coordinator summed it up: “This is not wellness for book reading; this is wellness for getting to know people.” Another participant explained that wellness stems from our “engagement with the world and other people.” And the science supports this too: Strong social ties have a positive impact on health generally, but specifically drive lower blood pressure rates better immune responses and lower levels of stress hormones.
When we read and share together, the book becomes an immediate common ground for connection. It encourages conversations that we don’t normally have at work – especially with colleagues who work in a building blocks away that we may never have the chance to meet. But most of all, Books@Work offers a reminder that the workplace is more than just a space to do business. A workplace is a vibrant community of human beings who crave connection and meaning.
One participant commented:
“I’ve participated in [the university’s wellness initiatives for] physical activity, nutrition, and stress. Those have been great, but I like that [the wellness program directors] acknowledged and prioritized being part of a community and getting together for a common purpose as an important aspect of how you feel about yourself, and how you feel about your experience at work.”
Another person found the program to be a refreshing release from the constraints of her work persona. “I don’t typically talk about family life and that kind of stuff in work settings. So it was kind of nice to be…my whole self in the space.”
When we are not able to be our whole selves at work – or when workplaces don’t acknowledge that employees are people who need social and emotional nourishment – then a healthy workplace is not possible.
At Books@Work, we believe that a culture of community, dialogue and trust is at the root of workplace wellness. As one participant said, “Books@Work contributes to wellness…because a complete fitness is body, spirit and mind.” We must nourish all three elements to be truly well.