Working on Wellness: How Howard County employers are making their workplaces healthier

National health care reform is on the minds of Americans, and whether one agrees with the new laws or not, the debate continues to stimulate discussion on how Americans can be healthier. The bottom line? Being sick costs money — not just for the individual but for employers as well.

“Seventy percent of doctors visits are related to lifestyle behaviors,” says Cheryl Walker, program manager for Health Coaching and Wellness Coaching at Tai Sophia Institute in North Laurel. “If we get people to change behaviors, we reduce health care costs.”

Everyone knows the old saying “habits are hard to break.” What the public health professionals are finally recognizing is that health education is not enough, and they are now looking at a relationship-centered approach to improving health.

One of the up-and-coming careers is the wellness coach, says Walker.

“Wellness, or health, coaching is the linchpin to helping people get out of their own way,” says the former executive coach.

Responding to that need, Tai Sophia has introduced the Wellness Coaching graduate certificate program. The first of its kind in the nation, this nine-month program prepares lay professionals such as human resource and employee assistance specialists, personal trainers, life coaches and others to teach and motivate their clients and staff to restore and preserve their health.

Using contemporary coaching models, students learn to ask strategic questions to help others understand what beliefs and external things might be holding them back from making healthier choices. They learn to gauge if clients are ready to change or if they need inspiration, and they also learn deeper listening skills.

Participants also get an overview on the foundations of health and wellness philosophies, the current health care system and reforms. One weekend session is devoted to the art of becoming a healing presence. This course explores how the rhythms of nature, life skills and language impact health and well-being.

A core belief at Tai Sophia is that “the body is wise, and we can have subtle symptoms that are teaching us something,” Walker says.

Verizon Wireless in North Laurel is a model that shows what a wellness coach can accomplish in the workplace.

Since 1999, a full-time wellness coach has worked to promote healthy living practices through seminars and e-mail newsletters, led fitness classes in the on-site gym and scheduled health screenings, including an annual mammography screening day, says Melanie Ortel, public relations director for the company’s Maryland/D.C./Virginia region. Employees pay $15 a month to use all these services, which includes working out with the personal trainer up to one time a day, if desired. When Verizon Wireless opened its Hanover facility in 2005, it continued with that model, Ortel says.

Another core belief at Tai Sophia is that “we lead from who we are.” For years, the institute had a graduate program in Applied Healing Arts. It reworked the courses, and now the program has a new name and is divided into two options: a master’s degree in Transformative Leadership and Social Change and a graduate certificate in Transformative Leadership.

For those who can’t devote the time to a master’s degree, the certificate program is offered on weekends for six months. Transformative Leadership takes a holistic approach to creating a healthy culture in the workplace, community or family. It’s geared to those who want to make sustainable change in their organizations, or even in their work teams.

The program’s focus is on building trust, self-reflection and the power of language to promote change. The latter component distinguishes Tai Sophia’s program from other executive coaching courses, says Cheryl Walker, who is also its interim program director.

“Culturally, our institutions have had a leadership breakdown in ethics. We discuss the ripple effects of a leader’s decision on the whole community,” Walker explains. “Who is a business responsible to? Only its shareholders, or is it all the stakeholders?” That’s something examined in this program.

Rich Carter, a sales account manager for a national pharmaceutical company in Philadelphia, graduated from the first Transformative Leadership certificate program last fall. Carter heard about Tai Sophia from a friend and attended an open house before committing to driving from Philadelphia to attend the weekend courses.

“I really wasn’t interested in a typical master’s program, like an MBA. This is really how to be a better manager, a better leader,” he says. “To build the best team, to create the best team environment that I can, that’s what I’m interested in, as opposed to only being interested in results.”

Carter found the language and listening skills to be the most powerful components of the program.

“Giving someone our undivided attention is not something we do anymore. We’re so concerned with being busy at work or making that deadline,” he observed. Since the program, Carter says he has learned to engage with others on a deeper level. If someone comes into his office, he takes his hands off the keyboard and turns his computer monitor away so he can give the co-worker his full attention.

Judith Broida, Tai Sophia’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, says that “wellness is not just the absence of disease but a balance physically, emotionally and spiritually that creates a sense of overall well-being. To stay healthy, people must be engaged.”

To help meet this need, the institute has also customized its Transformative Leadership program to deliver it for on-site corporate training.

“What providers and people want are more opportunities to stay well,” Broida says. “The wind is in our sails because the country is moving to incorporate more components of wellness in their life.”


A healthy workplace improves employee productivity and satisfaction and can reduce health care costs. Here are a few tips to start a workplace wellness program adapted from the Howard County Health Department’s Healthy Workplaces Tool Kit.

1. Assemble a wellness team with at least one upper management member and a human resources officer.

2. Survey the needs and interests of your employees including the culture and environment regarding health improvement.

3. Think out of the box. Healthy eating seminars, exercise programs and health screenings are just the beginning. Consider team-building activities, planting a garden or organizing a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.

4. Incentives and promotion are critical. Partner with off-site resources and activities such as 5K runs/walks, on-site massage therapy or group acupuncture sessions and self-defense classes. Start a company-wide health e-newsletter. Consider cash gifts or a paid day or half-day off to reward employees who reach stated health goals.

5. Evaluate programs to ensure goals are being met.

Resources to Get Started

• The Health Department’s Healthy Workplaces Tool Kit can be found online at Click on Healthy Howard, then Healthy Workplaces, or contact Phyllis Smelkinson at 410-313-6268 or

• Wellness Council of America has printed and downloadable resources including health information, sample surveys, assessment forms and evaluations.

• Journeyworks offers brochures on health topics printed in Spanish.

• The Mayo Clinic’s website offers tips for regaining work-life balance at and explanations of the effects stress can have on the body, management tips and relaxation techniques at

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