Employee Wellness Programs

September 2014

Transit agencies are beginning to develop wellness programs as they recognize the importance of employee physical and mental well-being on and off the job site, especially for drivers. 

Challenging work environments, like those faced everyday by transit workers, have been shown to greatly increase stress in employees, and stress is linked with numerous physical ailments. Workers suffering from chronic diseases, lack of sleep, injuries, and other illnesses take more days off and are less productive. It has been shown that better employee health leads to lower health care costs, less absenteeism, lower risk of injury, and better overall performance. Taking care of workers by creating a wellness program is a valuable investment.  

Employee wellness programs often involve exercise and weight-loss challenges, informational workshops, and partnerships with local exercise facilities or wellness experts. 

Sheree Webb presents driver Lisa Moore with a prize for winning a wellness challenge

Though it is not always easy to plan, develop, and implement a wellness program that suits everyone, starting small is key. The OATS Wellness For Life program, developed in 2012 by the OATS, Inc. rural transit system in Missouri, is a prime example of an ongoing and successful program. 

In the summer of 2014, OATS implemented the 90 Miles in 90 Days initiative to get employees walking. The program saw 58 employees walk a total of more than 10,000 miles. As Jill Stedem, Administrative Services Director and wellness coordinator explains, “our biggest challenge is finding programs that work for all our employees, as we have so many drivers who do not report to a physical location each day…but rather start each day from home.” Coming up with an action plan and implementing smaller challenges as part of a larger plan can lay the foundation for a growing program with lasting effects. The ultimate goal with any wellness program is motivating participants to become healthier and happier, resulting in life-long change, in addition to improved work performance.

Successful programming often begins by presenting employees with new and unique challenges. A wellness program should encourage all individuals to participate in something that is not only fun, but makes them look and feel their best. Adding incentives and prizes, and encouraging participation on all levels of the organization, will contribute to a successful program. OATS driver Maggie Meltabarger, who came in second in the 90 Miles challenge, has seen personal improvements as a result of the program. Says Maggie, “I hadn’t thought about the challenge until my Regional Director talked about it at our driver’s meeting. Then I thought, why not? It was fun and I feel so much better!” 

Some challenges exist in implementing a wellness program, such as not knowing how effective it will be or whether anyone will participate. It will take time to see measurable results for both the employees and the company’s investment. But as the OATS Wellness For Life program demonstrates, the effort is absolutely worth it. In addition to the benefits mentioned above, successful wellness programs acknowledge the value of transit workers and help build a sense of comradery and a more positive work environment.  

Read more about the OATS program below and think about how an employee wellness program might benefit your transit agency. Also be sure to check out the resources listed at the end of the article, especially the new TCRP report, Developing Best-Practice Guidelines for Improving Bus Operator Health and Retention, which includes a PowerPoint and an Excel template for planning and evaluating employee wellness programs.

Images: (Top) OATS Northeast Regional Director Sheree Webb presents driver Lisa Moore with a prize for winning a wellness challenge. (Bottom) An OATS vehicle.


Q&A with OATS Transit

How did you design the wellness program?

We kicked off OATS Wellness for Life program two years ago with this message to our employees: “You are important to so many people who count on you to be there for them every day—family, friends and our OATS riders. We all want you to be healthy and happy because you are worth it!” 

Missouri is listed in the top states with the highest obesity—more than 30% of Missourians are considered obese. We wanted to enhance the health and wellness of our own employees by supporting them and providing the tools for great health and fitness. Because we are a not-for-profit 501c3 organization, we had little funds to work with for an employee wellness program. We had to start small and phase in new activities and programs over time. We continually seek support from local businesses and through grants to support our wellness program. These include things like getting a local auto company to donate weigh scales for each facility, to getting a law firm to donate pedometers, to businesses and hospitals that donated promotional items. 

Our program is primarily activity-based, where we challenge employees and offer rewards for success. Our activities have included a Biggest Loser competition and various other challenges such as 90 Miles in 90 Days or Walk Across Missouri. We still want to grow the program to include a smoking cessation component, fitness club discounts, and other programs, which will take the support of corporations and grants to make happen. Our biggest challenge is finding programs that work for all employees as we have so many drivers who do not report to a physical location each day, but rather start and end each day from home, many in very rural parts of Missouri. We are having to build programs around our environment. 

OATS VehicleHow did you implement the program?

We started our wellness program with one goal in mind—OATS Wellness for Life! This became the program motto and still exists today. We don’t believe in fad diets or the yo-yo effect with weight loss. We want to help our employees have life-long success—take the weigh off for good and lower the need for medicines and/or hospital stays. As our wellness program is still very new, we are learning along the way to see what works and what doesn't. We knew with the Biggest Loser competition we would have to tweak it to make it work for our entire company of more than 700 employees. We turned to county health departments in rural Missouri, and nutrition centers who helped us weigh our employees and report their results. 

What were the initial employee reactions to the program?

Because the program started out as an activity-based program where participation was optional, we set up team challenges to also award team prizes and bragging rights for being the winning facility. We know from experience over the last couple of years that incentives are an important part of the program success. The benefits we are seeing are not just in weight loss or increased physical activity, but also building a comradery among fellow employees. If you build a healthy environment, more benefits will follow. 

Do you have any advice for other transit agencies who want to start their own wellness programs?

The key to starting a wellness program is to start slow and create activities or challenges that can work for anyone. Seek help from businesses that also support your company’s mission and believe in good health. Incentives and motivation are important, but backing from upper management is also crucial. Wellness programs have to have top-down support to be successful and to make the commitment for life-long changes.

What is the biggest advantage to having the program?

We are seeing many results from the wellness challenges we have offered. Those who have been successful are sharing their positive stories with others, which gets others on board. The result for several employees has not only been weight loss, but removing several medicines from their daily routine. It’s gratifying to hear a story from a driver who once was on many medicines, to now his only medicine is physical fitness. These people serve as our company cheerleaders, which has a positive impact.

We routinely get messages of success and notes of praise from our employees, which is so wonderful. We know we will never have complete buy-in from every employee because you have to want a lifestyle change first, but every person we get on board with the wellness program is another success story. Sadly, for some it takes a health tragedy before they wake up.

Did recent updates to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) physical regulations have an impact on your program?

OATS has over 650 drivers that span almost the entire state of Missouri. As an OATS driver, you are required to pass a DOT physical. Drivers are issued medical cards which are generally good for 2-3 years before another physical is required. Over the last few years we have seen an increase in the number of drivers getting cards for a shorter amount of time because of certain health conditions such as obesity, sleep apnea, diabetes, etc.  

New this year, DOT physicals can only be performed only by a medical examiner listed on the National Registry of Certified Medical Examiners. Factors that will play a much bigger role in these new 2014 regulations include a healthy body mass index (BMI) and more focus on sleep apnea. Some of our long-term drivers are experiencing problems passing the DOT physicals under the new federal motor carrier regulations enforced in May 2014. OATS is serious about helping our staff become healthier, and achieving their health/weight loss goal through various wellness initiatives. 

About OATS: OATS, Inc. is a private, not‐for‐profit corporation providing specialized transportation for senior citizens, people with disabilities, and the rural general public in 87 Missouri counties. Governed by a 15‐member Board of Directors, the organization has a staff of over 700 employees and a fleet of 800 vehicles statewide. The home office is located in Columbia, Missouri with seven regional offices located throughout the state. OATS has grown to be one of the largest and most unique systems of its kind in the country. For more information about OATS, Inc., please visit their website at www.oatstransit.org.



National RTAP Healthy Habits Technical Brief
TCRP Report 169: Developing Best-Practice Guidelines for Improving Bus Operator Health and Retention
TCRP Synthesis 33: Practices in Assuring Employee Availability
TRB Research on the Health and Wellness of Commercial Truck and Bus Drivers: Summary of an International Conference