Cultivating a Healthier Workforce

Johns Hopkins Medicine’s Healthy Food and Beverage Policy and wellness efforts win favor.

Published in Dome - January/February 2019 Dome

On Rich Safeer’s first day of work, the chief medical director of employee health and well-being at Johns Hopkins Medicine (JHM) took a walking tour of the East Baltimore campus.

The first thing he noticed was a Coca-Cola truck. Then, in the hospital cafeteria, he saw long lines of people waiting for pizza and burgers. The building’s vending machines were stocked with chocolate bars, cookies, potato chips and sugary drinks.

That was 2012. Now the visuals in the hospital are quite different.

A campaign to promote healthy drink choices uses traffic light icons: Green indicates a good beverage choice, yellow means exercise restraint, red means avoid or select rarely.

Discounts serve as incentives to choose cafeteria fare that is low in sodium, saturated fats and calories. All JHM hospital cafeterias will eventually reduce the cost of a “green-light” meal by 20 percent. This is already the case at several locations. The same discount will soon apply to healthier items in vending machines. Food ordered for staff meetings across the enterprise is also beginning to reflect nutritional guidelines.

Along with providing healthier food options, JHM’s workplace wellness initiative is introducing activities that can reduce stress and emotional burnout.

“Here at Hopkins, we’re often so intent on helping patients that we’re not focused enough on helping ourselves,” Safeer notes.

The Power of Reframing Food Choices

Johns Hopkins bases its nutrition choices on guidelines from the American Heart Association and the American Dietetic Association, along with feedback from faculty at the schools of medicine, nursing and public health. It also uses the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Worksite Health ScoreCard, a measurement tool with 125 questions that assess how well each member organization in the ScoreCard program is using resources, policies and programs to help prevent heart disease, stroke, obesity and other conditions.

“The nutrition section of the score card was the lowest scoring one for the first two years JHM participated in the program,” says Safeer.

But in 2018, he notes, JHM exceeded CDC ScoreCard benchmarks in nutrition and across other categories, including tobacco control, stress management, vaccine-preventable diseases, lactation support and managing high blood pressure. Johns Hopkins Medicine’s most recent CDC ScoreCard results show an increase in scores by 23 points, exceeding the benchmark.

Meetings remain a challenge, Safeer says. Bagels, cookies and overstuffed sandwiches continue to make their way onto conference tables.

But not for long.

As an extension of its healthy food and beverage policy, Johns Hopkins Medicine has joined the software platform Foodify. The online resource provides a customized ordering system that offers healthier options from participating restaurants and caterers. And now, hospital centers across the Johns Hopkins system can also order healthier meals through their food services departments.

Safeer and his team worked together with faculty to create guidelines, aided by food and culinary services. For example, salads and entrees should not exceed 700 calories, they should have less than 800 milligrams of sodium and they should include the option of whole grain bread. Desserts should not exceed 200 calories.

“We want to foster a healthy environment for staff members and visitors. As a leading medical institution, we should serve as a model of health promotion,” Safeer says. He and a group of experts across JHM meet regularly to look at national benchmarks as well as testimony from employees.

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The Next Frontier: Wellness Programs

The food and beverage policy is part of a larger plan to improve employee well-being by promoting programs that address emotional burnout as well as physical problems such as high blood pressure.

The new Office of Well-Being will oversee these efforts. Leading the initiative are Lee Daugherty Biddison, chief wellness officer; Deborah Dang, senior director of nursing for wellness; and Safeer. (Read more about the new office here.) 

Meditation, walking, yoga and other programs to ease stress are expanding across departments. Safeer says there are now more dedicated “quiet” rooms for meditation and relaxation.

“Healthier health care workers are more likely to deliver better care,” Safeer says.  Chances are, he adds, employees will also feel the positive effects of these lifestyle changes outside of work.

Read more about Johns Hopkins Medicine’s wellness initiatives and successes:

American Journal of Health Promotion

Portraits of Determination