For employees at the University of Missouri-Columbia Health Care System, it pays to be healthy-literally. Through a new university wellness program aimed at encouraging employees to take care of themselves mentally and physically, the university is waiving co-pays for preventative medical care such as well-child visits, child vaccinations, cancer screenings, X-rays and lab work. Participating in weight-management and exercise programs is also cost friendly: For example, employees who attend all 12 Weight Watchers meetings earn back 25 percent of their registration fee. Stress-reduction and meditation courses are free.

Using such incentives to motivate employee self-care is the brainchild of the program's leader, psychologist Laura Schopp, PhD-a longtime University of Missouri faculty researcher known for her clinical work and research in telehealth, neuropsychology and rehabilitation and the first psychologist to head a university wellness program of this size and scope, say university officials. The program is targeting the university's 4,700 hospital staff this year and will extend to the university's entire staff of more than 26,900 next year. Schopp has focused it as much on behavior change, mental health maintenance and stress reduction as on diet, exercise and health screenings.

She's says she is also looking to go beyond what other wellness programs have done, which is to target people with lots of free time to devote to self-care, who tend to be people in their 20s without children, demanding jobs or community responsibilities. By contrast, she aims to create a program that will offer diverse, practical options to appeal to a range of employees-including people with typical 9-to-5 jobs and those with more irregular schedules, such as nurses, doctors, researchers and maintenance staff, who are also juggling family and other responsibilities.

"Wellness programs have done a good job appealing to people with time on their hands, but those aren't really the people I know or the people I am seeing here," says Schopp. "People want reasonable, feasible programs and options they can work into their schedules."

Starting out

The university's Board of Curators initiated the program-called the University of Missouri Wellness Initiative-last year in the form of a task force charged with conducting a health-risk assessment of staff at the university's three hospitals in Columbia and one in southwestern Missouri.

"We found that the No. 1 problem for employees was stress," says Schopp, who served on the initial task force. "It far outstripped the other behavioral and direct health problems." Moreover, many of the most-cited problems were difficulties linked with stress: 62 percent of employees were overweight, 52 percent reported they had no opportunity to exercise, 15 percent smoked and many others reported high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

The survey results prompted the university to fund a health-promotion effort and to appoint Schopp its leader.

"She was the perfect fit," says Dennis Stambaugh, chief network officer of the University of Missouri Health Care System. "She sees this program from every angle and has a psychological and motivational understanding of the change process for people and how we can get people to adopt healthy lifestyles."

Spreading out

One of the first offerings Schopp has rolled out is mindfulness-based stress-reduction courses, which teach participants how to cope with pain or stress through meditation, yoga and communication exercises. The courses, many of which Schopp teaches and have waiting lists, are offered at several locations throughout the hospitals so employees can easily fit them in before, after or during work. Another popular offering is guided meditation classes, which are also sprinkled liberally across campus in meeting rooms for employee convenience.

In addition to the campus-sponsored Weight Watchers programs, employees can join a team weight-loss and exercise program that offers gift certificates for team weight-loss milestones; for $20 a month, employees can use the university's student recreation center complex. But not every employee works near the gym, so Schopp is pinpointing empty rooms or other areas around campus that can be converted into small gyms for employees use, including the hospital's Cardiac Rehabilitation Centers, which employees can now use during nonpeak hours.

"We're trying to be as smart as we can about how we use taxpayer dollars," says Schopp, who is also overseeing a group of geography majors at the university whose senior project is mapping out and marking walking trails near the hospitals that employees can use during breaks.

Under her direction, the program is also taking advantage of what she calls "teachable moments," such as the employees' annual tuberculosis test, to introduce optional preventative health screenings for cholesterol and diabetes, for example. And, the researcher in her has prompted her to seek out opportunities to link her program with ongoing research studies on weight loss and exercise at the university.

Schopp's next move is to introduce free or low-cost yoga, Pilates and other classes when the program expands next year. She's also considering smoking cessation programs and support-especially because the hospitals and clinics will become smoke free on Sept. 1.

So far, the program is popular with staff, say both Schopp and Stambaugh. One weight-loss group reported they collectively lost 130 pounds in the first week of the weight-loss program, and others have teamed up to form walking, mentoring and support groups.

The only problem? "Employees on campuses outside the health-system pilot are eager to get programs for their groups started and want the replication phase to begin now," says Schopp.

A career shift

For that expansion, Schopp will hire a team of health-care professionals to help her manage the wellness program. Indeed, running the initiative is no small job: Schopp had to set aside her research responsibilities and quickly get up to speed on large-scale budgeting, marketing and employee benefits.

"I never expected such a substantial shift in my career...but this was a very rare opportunity that I could not pass up," says Schopp. "It's proof that you really can take a psychology education anywhere."

In a way, she says, her new job also satisfies a longtime interest in positive psychology she developed during her years of rehabilitation research, when her work often included looking at why some people with chronic illness fare well.

She also sees the job as a potential training opportunity: She hopes one day to train other psychologists to work in similar leadership roles and share her expertise, particularly in benefits and budgeting. "Psychologists need all of these skills if we are going to lead the workplace wellness movement," she points out.

And while her new job is demanding, Schopp tries to lead by example by carving out time for relaxation and exercise. She keeps small hand weights under her desk and pulls them out to flex during phone calls and takes walks during the day or in the evening with her two young daughters. In fact, running the program is a daily reminder to make her own self-care a priority. Because her mother had a heart attack in her 50s, as well as diabetes, Schopp has vowed to make choices that will enable her to stay healthy.

Her new job makes that easier than ever.

"This is the first job I've ever had where employees send me thank-yous each day saying that they are so grateful the university is caring for its employees in all these ways," she adds. "It's very gratifying."