This story was originally published on Feb. 23, 2018.
Health and wellness may well be on your mind, but just not on your busy plate. And it’s easy to see how that can happen with nurses’ classically long hours, missed breaks, shift work and stress.
Eighty-seven percent of the nation’s hospitals – including most in metro Atlanta – recognize the challenges and, as of a 2015 survey, reported that they have a health and wellness program or other incentives to help nurses and other employees to better eating and better health.
With offers of one-on-one counseling, discounted Weight Watchers memberships, other incentives and close tracking, some are reporting beyond-hoped-for results.
For instance, WellStar Health Care System rolled out a comprehensive pilot program in January 2017 for 690 employees, a large majority of whom are nurses.
The one-year results exceeded expectations, said Dr. Angie Cain, who runs WellStar’s Health 365 program and is an obesity specialist.
Participating employees had an average weight reduction of 8.5 percent and saw a 2-point drop in their A1C, a measure of their average blood sugar levels that’s particularly critical to people with diabetes and a greater risk of developing diabetes-related complications, she said.
“It’s been a very positive outcome both in numbers and employee satisfaction,” Cain said.
In the program that is unique to WellStar, the hospital system created an on-site clinic, where employees have access to a gym, educational classrooms, doctors, dietitians, exercise physiologists and behavioral psychologists, she said.
Services and medications are free or deeply discounted, and participants receive $750 in their flexible spending accounts to help cover their insurance deductibles and other program-related expenses, Cain said. “We tried to think of each tier of treatment needed and provide some sort of incentive at each level for employees,” she said.
Research outlines the challenges. The American Nurses Association (ANA) reports that the nation’s 3.6 million registered nurses, are not as healthy, on average, as the public.
* Their diets are 30 percent less nutritious
* their body mass index (BMI) is 5 percent higher
*they get 10 percent less sleep
*and they have 2.8 times the stress.
Elyse Sartor, an outpatient dietitian at Northside Hospital Atlanta, said that, becoming a healthy nurse, like becoming a nurse, requires planning.
“And it doesn’t have to happen in 30 days,” she said.
Sartor said she encourages nurses to be patient and work on making permanent changes, such as learning to listen to their body, eating when hungry and stopping when full.
A challenge is that nurses, as caregivers, are likely to put their own needs last, she said.
A major positive, Sartor said, is that nurses love to learn.
“In my opinion, nurses have already shown that they can do anything they want to do,” she said.
In additional to one-on-one consultations with dietitians, Northside offers tobacco cessation classes and discounted memberships to LA Fitness to all employees. This includes covering all start-up and initiation fees, said spokeswoman Katherine Watson.
“Through our Northside Run/Ride/Walk program, we also regularly encourage employees to participate in the various health and wellness events that we sponsor throughout the year, including run/walks and bike races,” Watson said. “We often offer free entry to these events.”
At Northside Hospital Cherokee, employees annually compete in a six-week Wellness Challenge to live healthier, she said.
“Employees form teams and earn points by exercising and making healthy choices,” Watson said. “Participants attend a healthy awards luncheon at the end of the challenge and receive free giveaways to celebrate their success, with cash prizes going to the top-ranking teams.”
Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta has a program called Strong4Life that reimburses nurses half of the cost of Weight Watchers, nutrition classes, cooking classes, $4 value meals at on-site cafes and one-on-one nutrition consultations, said Lauren Lorenzo, MS, RD, LD and manager of employee wellness.
The Strong4life team also doles out fruit at Children’s hospitals and its other facilities to encourage nurses to eat less sugar and more whole, real foods, she said.
Registered dietitians are available to Children’s nursing staff for one-on-one consults or department presentations.
“They focus on meeting the nurses where they are and consistently work to understand their chaotic schedules,” Lorenzo said. “Registered dietitians help nurses to troubleshoot a variety of challenges, which are mostly centered around having enough time to be healthy.”
At Piedmont Athens Regional, a Weight Watchers at Work program is available to nurses and all other employees. Participants are reimbursed for 50 percent of the meeting costs, provided they attend 14 of the 17 weekly meetings, said Lauren Seale, a wellness coordinator in the hospital’s employee health and safety department.
Piedmont Athens Regional offers free nutrition counseling and free health coaching for its nurses, Seale said.
“Our registered dietician and our health coach work one-on-one with employees to develop an individualized plan to make positive changes in their health and well-being,” she said.
Employees also can participate in various wellness activities, monitor their improvement over time and earn points in their Healthy Incentive Account that can be converted to dollars to pay for out-of-pocket medical, prescription drug, dental and vision expenses for themselves and their dependents, Seale said.
This year, Children’s Healthcare is offering 10 to 15-minute programs on resilience, fitness and nutrition on their floors, Sharp said.
WellStar’s not resting on its 2017 success either, Cain said.
One of its new initiatives this year is to tag food in its cafeterias by the labels red, yellow and green, with green foods being the most nutritious and beneficial.
The green foods are discounted to encourage nurses and other staff to pick those, Cain said.
Here are a sample of some tips from front-line experts to help nurses eat better and stay healthy.
*pack your lunch and healthy snacks
*carry a water bottle and refill it through the day
*avoid long spells without eating by fueling on some power snacks
* don’t skip meals or you risk putting your body into fasting mode and feeling fatigued and unable to concentrate
* don’t binge on a single big meal and risk overwhelming your body with calories it doesn’t need and can’t handle
*limit your caffeine intake
*stay well-hydrated to ensure proper bowel function, circulation and body temperature regulation. (Drink at least 8 cups of decaffeinated beverages daily.)
* relax when eating, and start by taking a few deep breaths before the first bite
*limit vending-machine snacks, but, if that’s the only option, pick the healthiest choices
As you’ve likely told many patients but need to remember yourself, there are many upsides to healthy eating, including:
• maintaining a healthy weight
• reducing major health risks including heart disease, hypertension (high blood pressure), type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and certain cancers
• improving bone health by ensuring adequate calcium
• improving your immune system
• increasing energy levels
• improving concentration and mood, which helps you think more clearly and handle stress better
• and getting better quality sleep
Angela Holden, a nurse in Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center’s mother-baby unit, had fallen into the classic “night shift thing,” where eating healthy wasn’t a priority but sleeping was.
“I really hadn’t tried to lose weight,” said 44-year-old Angela, who has been a night shift nurse for more than 24 years, hitting the ground running 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. three days a week.
But last July, within months of being put on blood pressure and diabetes medicine, Angela was ready to make some life-changes.
She joined the hospital’s Weight Watchers at Work program, dropping 56 pounds by the end of January.
“I just decided to lose some weight before my daughter’s high school graduation in May,” Angela said. “And I knew it was just time to do better.”
The wife and mother of two teenage girls said she has been forcing herself to make healthier food choices and planning her meals in advance.
She also has been incorporating moderate exercise into her life, including walking laps at work. (Some of the other nurses – inspired by her success – now join her.)
“I feel awesome,” Angela said. “I feel like I have so much more energy, and I can get a lot more accomplished in the day.”
The hospital system reimburses employees half of the costs of their Weight Watcher’s membership, if they meet the weekly attendance requirements.
Angela plans to keep making her meetings and to keep losing weight. She wants to shed about 20 more pounds, and her doctor is talking about taking her off her diabetes medicine, she said.
“I have a weight goal, and I want to have a BMI [body mass index] in the healthy range,” Angela said. “We’re getting there.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.