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Bringing Health and Wellness into the Workplace

  • Practice

May is Employee Health and Fitness Month. With employees across the globe spending nearly one-third of their lives at work, how can organizations heed the call of wellness in the workplace?

Workplace wellness initiatives have become a hot topic in recent years — but if you ask John Gaspari, LCSW, director of the USC Center for Work & Family Life (CWFL) and an alumnus of the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, this movement has been many years in the making.

Gaspari’s career has been driven by an interest in social work within the context of the workplace, and much of his work centers on how employers can more effectively support their employees — beyond a salary and basic benefits. This is also the founding principle behind the CWFL, which prioritizes the holistic health of USC faculty and staff. The center is staffed by licensed mental health professionals who are also certified professional coaches guiding faculty, staff and their families toward the resources necessary to live more healthy, fulfilled lives both on and off campus.

For Employee Health and Wellness Month, Gaspari discusses his commitment to workplace wellness and what CWFL is doing to better the working lives of USC employees.

USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work: What initially drew you to the area of work-life balance and employee wellness?

John Gaspari: My interest in social work as it applies to the workplace was spurred by a few factors. The first was my father’s alcoholism during my childhood. He got sober in 1972 while working for Hughes Aircraft Company thanks to an unofficial employee assistance program. When everything in his life was falling apart, his job at Hughes provided the last vestiges of stability. This performance-focused workplace program not only helped him get sober but in many ways salvaged his life and our family.

The second reason for my interest in this work stems from my understanding that the workplace can be a stressful environment and is often associated, frankly, with a lot of mental and emotional pain. Since the recession, we’ve seen a commoditization of labor: a shift has occurred in the relationship between workplaces and employees, making it more of a buyer’s market than a seller’s. While workplace-employee relationships once felt more mutual, they’ve now become more transactional.

My interest is in ameliorating that. Working is a fact of life for most people that occupies a significant portion of our waking hours, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to do what we can to humanize the workplace environment. Science tells us that for optimal performance and productivity, the human brain needs to be in a state of safety. I believe organizations want to create environments that create this sense of safety for employees and inspire them to do their best work, but I’m not always sure they’re using the right tools or methods to get there.

USC: What services does CWFL provide that can be useful in this pursuit?

JG: We offer a short-term model of counseling for faculty and staff and their family members for a wide range of personal and work-related issues. This program consists of up to 10 sessions during a 12-month period. And for issues that cannot be sufficiently addressed within 10 sessions, we refer individuals to other programs and services where this important work can be continued.

We also offer professional coaching services to USC faculty, clinicians and senior staff. Coaching sessions are meant to address goals for personal and professional growth, but they can also focus on work-life balance and health issues. The results of the program, especially among health sciences physicians and faculty members, have been encouraging, and we’re working to expand the services we offer.

Finally, we do management consultation for supervisors, managers and HR partners around human relations and workplace behavioral health. This consulting addresses ways to improve performance at work as it relates to a multifaceted understanding of health. Some issues in the workplace may be related to physical health and some may relate to emotional or mental well-being and the way people relate to one another in the workplace.

USC: If an organization realizes that its current approach to health and wellness is lacking, what steps can it take to bridge that gap?

JG: In a coaching capacity, we always assume the client has the answers — we simply work alongside them to help them identify their goals. We often start with basic questions such as: What matters? Why should we care? How do we know we’re making a difference? It’s similar to clinical work. Doctors don’t prescribe an intervention before conducting a thorough assessment.

Once an intervention has been put into place, we evaluate its effect over time. It’s never a static process; our work is dynamic, and always takes place within the context of the organization’s and an individual’s specific needs.

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