Well-being in the workplace

An interview with the well-being specialists of Harvard Pilgrim

  • Tami Ireland

    Director of Population Health Improvement

  • Jonathan Roberts

    Operations Manager for Mindfulness-Based Learning

Q: Can you talk a little bit about Harvard Pilgrim’s approach to well-being — how is it different from wellness?

Tami: Wellness is often associated with strictly diet and exercise. We believe in a more holistic, inclusive approach that includes having a sense of purpose, your connections to the community, the impact of your environment, your financial health, and so on. As I like to say it, “You are more than just your BMI!”

Q: How does Harvard Pilgrim guide members toward overall well-being?

Tami: Every Harvard Pilgrim member has access to a lifestyle management coach. These coaches are very skilled at helping members set and achieve their goals. Along the way, we also introduce members to other benefits that can be accessed from our website, including our online well-being program, free mindfulness resources, a discounted alternative medicine network, and savings and discounts on everything from eyewear to child care.

Q: You’ve already talked about “mindfulness” as part of well-being. What is mindfulness?

Jonathan: There are a lot of complicated explanations for mindfulness out there, and it is definitely a topic with many components. But we like to keep things as straightforward as possible — at its base, mindfulness training is simply a way to enable people to tap into their brain’s built-in capacity for clarity and focus. A higher-level definition is to be awake, aware, in the present moment, and knowing it. In other words, being aware of being aware.

Tami: Sometimes people think they need to eat a strict diet of kale and sit on an empty beach with their legs bent in a pretzel shape to practice mindfulness. If that works for you, great (and be sure to check out our Green City Growers discount). But we want everyone to know that mindfulness can also be for you if your last meal was a candy bar and you’re excited to get the couch to yourself. Our resources are grounded in science, easy to understand, and designed to help all kinds of people.

Q: Why should employers care about this for their employees?

Jonathan: The really important thing about mindfulness is that a little participation can make a big impact. Science has demonstrated that mindfulness training can help strengthen neuropathways in the brain that enhance creativity, health, and performance at work and in life. Even the most basic instruction in mindfulness can positively affect mood and sleep quality, reduce your chance of burnout, enhance listening and collaboration skills, and make you less prone to distraction. And I think it’s certainly easy to see why these benefits would be valuable to everyone, from a member of a company’s senior leadership to a front-line worker in a call center.

Tami: We help our clients track and quantify the experience of their employees, either by using simple online surveys or with the help of researchers who are studying the larger organizational impacts of mindfulness training. All the data we see trends in the direction we expect it to — participants report statistically significant improvements on measures like work­–life balance and the ability to stay focused on a task.

Q: How does Harvard Pilgrim bring these benefits to the workplace?

Jonathan: Back in 2005, our colleague Tara Healey — who was working in our HR department at that time — got this idea that mindfulness could be converted into a training program for Harvard Pilgrim staff members. Tami saw that this program could be brought to our employer groups, too, and so Tara developed a whole suite of courses and workshops called “Mind the Moment.” Our clients got really excited about it and to date, we’ve taught our program at over 200 different organizations.

Tami: Though we do think the ideal way to engage people in mindfulness training is with an instructor in person, we’ve learned that it’s not a possibility for everyone. With that in mind, we’ve developed a few different ways for people to engage on social media, where we have a lot of free audio and video content available. We also have a toll-free number people can call to hear three-minute guided meditations, in both English and Spanish. We’ve even partnered with some of the best mindfulness apps out there to create a hybrid program with both live and mobile instruction.

Mind the Moment resources

Q: Is there anything more you want to add about the benefits of mindfulness?

Tami: We are developing specific resources to help members use mindfulness to manage pain. People usually don’t look into mindfulness or other nontraditional pain management tools until they are in a situation where they need it. They may not know where to begin. This new program will make it easy for our members to give mindfulness a try.

Jonathan: I think it’s important to add that we don’t think mindfulness can take away all of one’s problems — it’s not a cure-all, and implying that it is only sets people up for disappointment. The impacts of mindfulness are real, and they are broad, but any successful wellness strategy needs to take a well-rounded approach, touching on other pieces of the puzzle like nutrition and physical exercise.

Q: How about any other unique ways Harvard Pilgrim is promoting employee well-being?

Tami: We have a full menu of innovative programs that we bring to the workplace. A lot of our clients enjoy our alternative health series that allows employees to try their hand at practices such as Reiki and reflexology without having to take time away from work. Seeds to Harvest is another popular series that includes lessons in growing and harvesting your own food, as well as freezing, batch cooking, and fermenting. We can even show you how to use popsicles to get your veggies in.

Q: What would you say to someone who isn’t sure if this would be possible in their workplace?

Tami: Challenge us. We’ve worked in sheds, buses, and tents, and have brought together employees all over the world via webcasts. Our menu also includes a popular line of “takeout” options that employees can bring home to use, including yoga kits, cooking with zoodles, and more.

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