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University of Missouri Making Health and Wellness Top Priority

Major Wellness Initiative to Target Stress, Smoking, Weight and Inactivity

March 28, 2007

Story Contact:  Jennifer Faddis, 573-882-6217,

COLUMBIA, Mo. — As obesity climbs to the top of the charts as the leading cause of preventable death in the Unites States and health care costs continue to rise, more employers are recognizing the importance of wellness and prevention. The University of Missouri is preparing to spread a wellness initiative to all four campuses in the UM system, following the success of a pilot program. The program addresses everything from stress management to smoking cessation.

The pilot program began in 2004 by identifying health and wellness needs through an online health risk assessment of more than 1,000 University of Missouri Heath Care employees. Stress was identified as the number one issue, followed by weight problems, inactivity and smoking. More than half of those surveyed reported no regular physical activity, and more than 60 percent reported being overweight.

"Health issues have the potential to make or break a work environment," said Laura Schopp, director of the Thomas Atkins University of Missouri Wellness Program and associate professor of health psychology in the MU School of Health Professions. "Most employers that sponsor wellness programs have a significant return on the investment, ranging from three to as much as seven dollars for every dollar invested. Providing a wellness program lowers health care costs, reduces absenteeism, improves morale, and is just the right thing to do."

After assessing the needs, programs were created to address them. A mindfulness based stress reduction class was offered, 'Freedom from Smoking' programs were put into place and health fairs with free screenings were offered. Weight Watchers at work was initiated. The tobacco-free policy was extended to the entire grounds of the hospital. The program also picked up the tab for smokers who wanted nicotine replacement therapy for a month and offered it at a reduced cost after that.

"In a small pilot program, we documented a decrease in the use of pain medication from people who participated in the stress management program," Schopp said. "We saw some of our toughest critics of the tobacco free grounds policy turn around after attending smoking cessation classes and become advocates for wellness. Many of our former smokers have become strong and effective role models for others."

Part of the program also encouraged employees to participate in "Shape Up Missouri," a statewide challenge in which teams strive to reach weight loss and/or physical activity goals. As a result, UMHC employees took top honors in the challenge and were recognized as having the highest employer enrollment in the state.

"Our chief asset is our people," Schopp said. "They are our No. 1 resource. If we don¿t take care of our people, we cannot thrive in our key missions of teaching, research and service."

The program was recently renamed the "Thomas Atkins UM Wellness Program" in honor of the member of the Board of Curators who initiated the idea. Curator Emeritus Atkins recently donated $30,000 (for a total of $105,000) to advance the program and extend it to all campuses. Future efforts will include health assessment, intervention and outcomes evaluation on each of the UM campuses in Columbia, Rolla, St. Louis and Kansas City. Long range goals include full integration of the research, teaching and service functions of the University with respect to health promotion and workplace wellness.

"We are in a unique position in that most corporate wellness programs do not have the internal health and wellness resources that we as a land-grant, multi-campus university system have," Schopp said. "We have considerable health expertise, some excellent facilities and superb researchers, and we will bring all of these assets to bear on improving health."