Counselors and Workplace Wellness Programs: A Conceptual Model

Yvette Saliba, Sejal Barden

Occupational stress is a top source of stress for over 65% of Americans due to extended hours in the workplace. Recent changes in health care have encouraged employers to build workplace wellness programs to improve physical and mental health for employees to mitigate the effects of occupational stress. Wellness programs focus on either disease management; treating chronic illnesses, such as hypertension and diabetes; lifestyle management; or preventing chronic illnesses through health promotion. This manuscript provides an overview of recent changes in health care and describes a conceptual framework, Steps to Better Health (S2BH), that counselors can use in workplace wellness programs. S2BH is an 8-week psychoeducational group based on the combination of motivational interviewing (MI) and the transtheoretical model of change (TTM).


Keywords: wellness, health care, workplace, stress, Steps to Better Health


Health and wellness are two concepts that have captured the attention of people throughout history. From Greek mythology to modern times, the idea of well-being has permeated society (Myers & Sweeney, 2007). Today, with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), health care is moving away from a disease treatment model and embracing a disease prevention model (PPACA, 2010). Although individuals typically do not invest in preventive health measures, many businesses and companies are eager to improve their health care programs for employees (Willis Towers Watson, 2017). These changes in health care are relevant to mental health providers, as a new focus on prevention has created opportunities for counselors to help effect lasting health changes among employees. Therefore, to fit into this paradigm shift, professional counseling should be strongly connected to prevention and wellness (Granello, 2013). This article discusses the changes in health care models, how those changes are creating spaces for mental health counselors to fill and implications for the counseling profession.


The Changing Landscape of Health Care

In 2015, the Kaiser Family Foundation released a report highlighting the rising cost of health care expenditures from 1960 to 2013. This report indicated that health care costs, which include total costs for hospital visits, physicians and clinics, as well as prescription medications, have risen from 27.4 billion dollars to over $2 trillion (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2015). Due in part to increases in the cost of health care and health insurance, the PPACA was passed into federal law in 2010. Mandates of the PPACA include: (a) preventing the denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions; (b) strengthening community health centers; (c) decreasing health disparities; (d) promoting integrated health systems; (e) connecting physician payments to the quality rather than the quantity of care provided; and (f) lowering long-term costs by providing free and more comprehensive preventive care (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Care, 2016). In a White House memo sent out during National Public Health Week in 2014, President Obama stated, “my administration is supporting efforts across our country to improve public health and shift the focus from sickness and disease to wellness and prevention” (Obama, 2014, p. 1).

This shift is clearly seen in the PPACA. Section 4001 of the PPACA, entitled “Modernizing Disease Prevention and Public Health Systems,” discusses ways in which health prevention should be carried out within the public sector (PPACA, 2010). This portion of the law includes a taskforce team that would: (a) evaluate wellness programs in 2013; (b) create the Prevention and Public Health Fund to distribute money to worksites establishing wellness programs; (c) further the education of health and wellness promotion; and (d) report on measures enacted that address lifestyle behavior modification (PPACA, 2010). Lifestyle behavior modification is defined as activities that include “smoking cessation, proper nutrition, appropriate exercise, mental health, behavioral health, substance use disorder, and domestic violence screenings” (PPACA, 2010, p. 422). In other words, initiatives from the federal government highlight the emphasis on prevention in both community and clinical health venues and extend this focus by supporting research into workplace wellness initiatives (Anderko et al., 2012). Though the PPACA encourages workplace wellness programs, many employers see the benefits to their employees even without federal regulations. In a recent survey, employers indicated they are still committed to better workplace wellness programs despite the unknown future of the PPACA (Willis Towers Watson, 2017). One primary motivator behind these programs is a reduction of employee stress through health promotion.


Health Promotion in the Workplace

According to the 2015 Bureau of Labor and Statistics report, Americans spent 8.8 hours a day at work or doing work-related activities (U.S. Department of Labor, 2016). Therefore, it can be estimated that Americans spend much of their lives in workplace settings, which can lead to occupation-related stress. In 2012, the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Stress in America Survey revealed that 65% of Americans reported work as a top source of stress (APA, 2016). Stress can affect a person’s emotional state, and it also can weaken the body’s ability to regulate itself after a stressful experience, which can eventually cause detrimental health consequences (Galla, O’Reilly, Kitil, Smalley, & Black, 2015). For example, the effects of chronic stress have been shown to lead to obesity and metabolic diseases (Razzoli & Bartolomucci, 2016). As a result, many individuals have resorted to maladaptive ways of coping with stress, highlighting the need for bringing stress management skills to the workplace (Galla et al., 2015). In addition, the World Health Organization has stated that health promotion in the workplace (promoting aspects of physical and emotional wellness) is beneficial in combating work-related stress (Jarman, Martin, Venn, Otahal, & Sanderson, 2015).

Finding ways to help employees manage their stress through health promotion in the workplace is typically conducted through workplace wellness programs, which include both lifestyle and disease management programs (Caloyeras, Hangsheng, Exum, Broderick, & Mattke, 2014; Kaspin, Gorman, & Miller, 2013; Mattke et al., 2013). Promoting positive health habits among employees maintains affordable health coverage and increases worker productivity (Anderko et al., 2012; Parkinson, Peele, Keyser, Liu, & Doyle, 2014; Shapiro & Moseley, 2013). Most workplace wellness programs focus on disease management, treating chronic illnesses such as diabetes and hypertension. Disease management programs also typically utilize health care professionals, such as nurses, to conduct face-to-face meetings or telephone consultations (Caloyeras et al., 2014). Conversely, lifestyle management programs prevent chronic illnesses by: (a) reducing stress; (b) lowering weight; (c) encouraging exercise; (d) promoting smoking cessation; and (e) fostering overall well-being (Caloyeras et al., 2014; Kaspin et al., 2013; Mattke et al., 2013).


Wellness Programs

Johnson & Johnson was an early pioneer in the creation and promotion of workplace wellness programs. In the 1970s, the company implemented a wellness program for employees called Live for Life (Ozminkowski et al., 2002). In 1993, this program was modified to integrate the following additional services: (a) employee health; (b) occupational medicine; (c) health promotion; (d) disability management; and (e) an employee assistance program. A modified program was rebranded with a new title: The Johnson & Johnson Health & Wellness Program (Ozminkowski et al., 2002). At the time of the program analysis, Johnson & Johnson employed approximately 40,000 people in the United States, 90% of whom participated in their wellness program. The program was evaluated by comparing outpatient doctor visits, hospital inpatient stays and mental health visits over the course of four years as compared to three years prior to the start of the wellness program. The worksite wellness program resulted in significant annual savings per employee/per year. On average, the study reported $45.17 savings for each outpatient visit, $119.67 per inpatient stays and $70.69 for mental health visits. In sum, Johnson & Johnson reported over $8 million in annual savings (Kaspin et al., 2013; Ozminkowski et al., 2002), creating a model wellness program that has been replicated in other organizations to varying degrees.

In contrast, PepsiCo offered a program in 2004 that did not produce similar results. Over 55,000 employees participated in a 3-year study, and it was determined that while costs were high in the initial year, it was the disease management portion of the program that lowered overall medical expenses by the third year (Liu et al., 2013). The disease management program was six to nine months in length and involved regular phone calls with a nurse for 15 to 25 minutes (Caloyeras et al., 2014). The program focused primarily on conditions such as asthma, coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, hypertension and strokes (Caloyeras et al., 2014). Conversely, the lifestyle management portion of the program, which focused on weight management, nutrition management, fitness, stress management and smoking cessation, was described simply as involving a “series of telephonic calls with a wellness coach over a six-month period” (Caloyeras et al., 2014, p. 125). Training to become a wellness coach varies widely, ranging from a few days to 6 months. Training typically requires an associate degree and 18 weeks of classes conducted over the telephone or four full days of training in topics that include: (a) growth-promoting relationships; (b) expressing compassion; and (c) eliciting motivation to overcome ambivalence (Wellcoaches, 2016). The lack of sustainable changes in lifestyle wellness programs may be due to the variation and brevity of training for wellness coaches.

Hospitals have started employee wellness programs to lower employee health insurance costs, support mental health, and recruit and retain quality employees (Caloyeras et al., 2014; Hochart & Lang, 2011; Liu et al., 2013; Parkinson et al., 2014). Ironically, while the health care system is designed to help patients achieve good health, it often comes at the price of high stress levels and poor health for the employees (Chang, Hancock, Johnson, Daly, & Jackson, 2005; McClafferty & Brown, 2014; Smith, 2014). In fact, hospital employees tend to exhibit poorer health than other types of employees, which results in hospitals having the highest health care costs among employment sectors in the United States (Parkinson et al., 2014). As a result, some hospitals, such as the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, are introducing the idea of employee wellness programs. In 2005, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center utilized a prepackaged wellness program called MyHealth—a program that included both lifestyle and disease management components (Parkinson et al., 2014). Based on the number of requirements an employee met and activities he or she engaged in, the program provided credit that could be used to lower insurance deductibles (Parkinson et al., 2014). MyHealth consisted of online education materials, self-help tools, telephonic health coaching and support groups for lifestyle issues such as smoking cessation, depression, and emotional health and stress issues (Parkinson et al., 2014). Over a 5-year period, overall health care costs were lowered, but again, savings were attributed to the disease management portion of the program and not the lifestyle management portion (Caloyeras et al., 2014). Although there has been moderate success with wellness programs, the inclusion of counselors could make these programs more successful.


Need for Counselors in Wellness Programs

Changes in health care and increases in worksite wellness programs have created footholds for trained mental health professionals. As evidenced in the cases above, health care professionals, rather than mental health professionals, are facilitating lifestyle wellness programs. This is unfortunate, as professional counselors are trained in the skills of rapport building, demonstrating empathy and helping others achieve their goals. To build upon counselors’ inherent training and strengths may reduce the need for additional support and behavior change training. Utilizing counselors may result in stronger program implementation and cost savings for companies (Groeneveld, Proper, Absalah, van der Beek, and van Mechelen, 2011). Furthermore, although there have been some promising results and modest savings due to wellness programs, the variability in the content of wellness programs ranges widely. Therefore, it is proposed that having a program designed and led by counselors may have the potential to create larger savings for the lifestyle management portion of worksite wellness programs. With counselors utilizing their skills and coupling these techniques with aspects of motivational interviewing (MI) and the transtheoretical model of change (TTM), they could strengthen the lifestyle management portion of wellness programs and build on the foundation of wellness in counseling. To this end, we propose a psychoeducational lifestyle management conceptual framework that combines both MI and the TTM in an 8-week program, entitled Steps to Better Health (S2BH), which is described in the following section.


Components of S2BH

MI is an approach that helps individuals motivate themselves to pursue the changes that they seek. The founders of MI, Miller and Rollnick (2013), defined MI as “a collaborative conversation style for strengthening a person’s own motivation and commitment to change” (p. 12). More precisely, MI is about skillfully arranging conversations so that people talk themselves into changing (Miller & Rollnick, 2013). Further, MI has been positively correlated with stress reduction, medication adherence, diet change and exercise participation (Rollnick, Miller, & Butler, 2008). Miller and Rollnick (2013) asserted that people from all backgrounds could be trained to use the tools of MI; however, they emphasize that MI is not simply a collection of techniques (Miller & Rollnick, 2013). Rather, MI should be applied in a context that is characterized by client-counselor collaboration, client independence, and empowering clients to find and use their own resources for change (Young, Gutierrez, & Hagedorn, 2012). In addition to MI, the proposed wellness program integrates the TTM, an evidence-based model for change, and research on effective group work.

The TTM was developed by Prochaska and DiClemente (1982) to facilitate behavioral changes for individuals (Campbell, Eichhorn, Early, Caraccioli, & Greeley, 2012). The TTM consists of five stages of change individuals experience when changing behavior. The five stages are: (a) pre-contemplative (not thinking about change); (b) contemplative (thinking about change); (c) preparation (taking steps to begin change); (d) action (making the change); and (e) maintenance (creating a habit of new change; Shinitzky & Kub, 2001).

Prochaska et al. (2008) reviewed employee health promotion interventions, and results demonstrated that both MI and the TTM individually can lead to effective change. Participants (N = 1400) at a major medical university were assigned to three treatment groups: brief health risk intervention (BHRI) only (n = 433), online TTM-tailored treatment (n = 504), and an MI treatment group (n = 433; Prochaska et al., 2008). The results of the study showed that both the MI and TTM treatment groups had more individuals participating in the action stage for exercise and indicated better management of stress along with less health risk behaviors in 6 months than the BHRI only group (Prochaska et al., 2008). This study suggests that if both MI and TTM are effective separately, then combining them could lead to further success. Additionally, utilizing this combination within the framework of a psychoeducational group for a workplace would create efficiency.

Psychoeducational group work is ideal for a wellness program as it is a “hybrid of an academic course and counseling session” (Brown, 2011, p. 8). This format allows participants to feel as though they are attending a class, which can help them focus on learning and implementing a specific task without the potential stigma of therapy. For working professionals who may not feel the need to participate in traditional counseling, a psychoeducational group provides opportunity for discussions and activities in which individuals can practice various wellness techniques in a safe setting. Additionally, groups can be more cost-effective for businesses and organizations, as a number of individuals can simultaneously accomplish goals in a shared timeframe.

For many wellness programs, the results have been mixed due to expensive training and inadequate application of behavior change principles. For the lifestyle management portion of these wellness programs to be successful, a stronger framework would need to be implemented along with the use of professionally trained counselors. Therefore, a conceptual framework that counselors can consider adapting for a wellness lifestyle management program is proposed. The intention is to emphasize critical theoretical components while integrating practical ideas for counselors to build upon and adapt into their own lifestyle and health management programs.



     The proposed intervention of S2BH is an 8-week pyschoeducational group that incorporates aspects of both MI and the TTM. Each session consists of a short lesson about a concept related to change followed by a discussion that progressively moves each participant toward making the decision to change and successfully enacting those changes. Devoting 1 hour per week over the span of 8 weeks would yield overall balance and wellness among employees, leading to higher work performance and lower absenteeism (Vitality Institute, 2014). In addition to group sessions, the counselor should be available for optional one-on-one follow-up sessions, up to two times after the initial 8 weeks, ideally at the employer’s expense. These sessions would provide the opportunity for employees to address specific wellness concerns to help maintain changes. For demonstration purposes, below is a brief case example that demonstrates how S2BH could be utilized. In addition, Table 1 contains an overview of the program.


Case Illustration

Polly, a 46-year-old oncology nurse for 20 years, and Amelia, a 35-year-old oncology nurse for 9 years, work at Metro Hospital, a 2,000-bed acute care medical facility located in a busy downtown area. Both Polly and Amelia were frustrated about their workloads and felt burned out because of job stressors. They were both interested in joining the S2BH group, as it would give them more points in Metro’s HealthyYou! Campaign. These additional points could later be translated into monetary bonuses to encourage employee participation. After gaining permission from their nurse manager to be part of the S2BH group, both women joined seven other nurses from different floors once a week for an hour during their lunch break. Both Polly and Amelia completed physicals as a part of the campaign, and despite weight and blood pressure issues, neither of the physicals for both women showed severe health concerns.

During their first meeting, Polly shared feeling fatigued and believing that her lack of exercise played a part in that. Amelia stated that though she managed to walk once a week, she still felt lethargic both emotionally and physically, but was not sure why. During this first group, the counselor utilized one of the central principles of MI, which reflects listening skills to express empathy and genuine caring for the nurses. To close the group, everyone received the S2BH Wellness Primer Worksheet as homework.


Table 1

Suggested Curriculum for Steps to Better Health


Weekly Session

Session Details

Activities in Session

Homework Assigned

Week 1: Rapport Building and Therapeutic Alliance

Counselor will welcome the group and explain the weekly format, with emphasis on goal attainment. Participants will be encouraged to share work-related stressors and wellness goals. A worksheet will be provided for participants to outline wellness goals, steps needed to achieve goals and identification of stressors.

Week 2:

Wellness Education

Participants will explore reasons for change and discuss the homework from the previous session. Participants will discuss potential pitfalls and necessary supports for successful change. Participants will identify what problems they encountered with their last change attempts.

Week 3:

The Stages of Change

Counselor will give lesson on TTM, focusing on the stages of change. Participants will identify which stage of change they are in and work to develop stage-matched interventions. Participants will write down the advantages and disadvantages of achieving their wellness goal(s).

Week 4:

Exploring Ambivalence

Counselor will lead a discussion on ambivalence (Miller & Rollnick, 2013; Shinitzky & Kub, 2001). Participants will discuss benefits and costs of not changing behavior. Each participant will identify one to two new habits as they move toward their wellness goal(s).

Week 5:

Habit Formation

Counselor will discuss how participants can create new habits. Using homework, members will identify cues/routines/rewards for each new habit identified (Duhigg, 2012). Each participant will bring to the next session a brief update on their wellness goal(s).

Week 6:

Reframing & Risk Assessments

Participants will discuss triggers and potential tactics to adhere to personal goals. Participants will identify and isolate potential triggers and solutions for the individual. Participants will identify stressors from work and life that could jeopardize wellness goal(s).

Week 7:

Stress Busters

Participants will discuss stress and ways to enhance coping skills (e.g., emotion-based and action-based). Participants will use homework to identify appropriate coping skills for each stressor. Participants will use one of the identified coping skills over the next week.

Week 8:


Participants will discuss how to stay motivated and engaged with wellness plans. Participants will discuss achievements followed by a termination activity. No homework assigned.


Polly and Amelia came back to the second group with their S2BH Wellness Primer Worksheet results and were a little hesitant to begin discussing their results. After a few other members shared, Polly stated that the wellness primer made her more aware of her lack of exercise. Amelia then shared that this was the first time she had sat down and reflected on her health and well-being, and though she was not sure it was necessarily helpful, she was willing to try anything to stop feeling “blah.” Following the discussion on the wellness primer, group members worked on developing a wellness plan for the areas they wanted to improve. To close the session, the counselor discussed with the members ways to begin working on their goals in incremental steps and noted different ways they had started addressing those steps.

After learning about the stages of change from the TTM in the third session, Polly was animated about which stage she was on in relation to her goal of exercising more. She shared that she had been stuck on the contemplative stage of change for more years than she could count. She stated that she wanted to lose weight but could not seem to motivate herself to walk before her shift started.

Amelia stated that she wanted to eat better and classified herself as being in the pre-contemplative stage of change. She reported that she needed to eat better because she relied too often on caffeine and sugary foods to keep her going throughout the work day. Several of the group members expressed hope in knowing that they were not just “being lazy,” but were in a process of change. Amelia stated that just knowing that gave her a boost of energy.

After checking in during the fourth session and finding out where everyone was with their goals, the counselor led a discussion on the MI concept of ambivalence. Polly found this a little challenging, as she just wanted to list the pros and cons of her new health goals: exercising and eating better. Once she understood that she was to list both the benefits and costs of continuing her current behavior versus enacting her new health goal, she became more involved in the activity. As a result, Polly listed some pros of walking in the morning as being “it centers me as I release some of the frustration from the day before,” and “I use this time to organize my mind for the upcoming tasks for the day.” Amelia stated that some of her cons for not changing her behavior included “crashing hard around 4 p.m. in the afternoon” and “losing focus when working with patients.”

For the fifth session, a discussion centered around Duhigg’s (2012) book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, and how members could apply the principle of cue, reward and routine to help them achieve their goals. Polly stated that she started putting her walking shoes out with her exercise clothes so that she could immediately see them when she woke up (cue). She would play her favorite podcast while walking (routine), and reward herself with a small low-calorie pastry for breakfast (reward). Amelia stated that she started to place almonds and other energy-boosting snacks at the nurses’ station so she could easily see them (cue), then would snack on those items while talking with colleagues (routine). As a result, she felt her energy lasting longer throughout the day (reward).

The nurses enjoyed reframing their previous “relapses” in the sixth session. Amelia reported that she was aware it was normal to move back and forth between the stages and that this knowledge alleviated concerns about failure. The group had a lively discussion about what triggers or pitfalls stood in their way and what places or things they should avoid as a result. For example, Polly stated that if she hit the “snooze button,” she would stay in bed and forgo her walk. Realizing this, she opted to place her alarm clock across the room so that she would have to get out of bed to turn off the alarm.

The seventh session on stressors became more emotional than anticipated as many of the nurses talked about their work and the unique stress they experience when taking care of ill and terminally ill patients. The group members talked about their thoughts and feelings and supported one another during this session. As a result, a spontaneous sharing of how nurses deal with the grief of losing patients occurred. Amelia shared that she had recently decided to join Team in Training for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and train for a half marathon in memory of one of her younger patients. She stated that letting the family know and beginning to raise money for research in this area was helping her to positively channel her grief. As a result of this discussion, several of the nurses stated that they left the group with hope, connectivity, and ideas for channeling their grief and stress.

The final session of the group focused on closure. Amelia shared that although she was initially dubious about the group, as a result of her sharing and the small changes she was making with her snacking, she was not feeling as “blah” anymore. Polly also shared that while she had not lost weight yet, she felt more motivated to continue walking and noticed that she felt more positive about walking.



Changes in health care have increased job opportunities in health care for counselors. The PPACA allows counselors the opportunity to expand their background of wellness while capitalizing on preventive health care initiatives (Barden, Conley, & Young, 2015; Granello & Witmer, 2013). With the interrelatedness between physical and mental health, counselors are ideally positioned to help clients achieve their wellness goals. Connections between physical activity and psychological well-being are well established, as are the potential benefits of improved coping with stress and adversity (Focht & Lewis, 2013). Because chronic stress has been shown to contribute to obesity and metabolic diseases (Razzoli & Bartolomucci, 2016), helping employees improve their coping skills can lead to adaptive ways of dealing with stress, which ultimately impacts chronic health conditions. To better manage occupational stress, counselors can fill the need for bringing stress management skills to the workplace (Galla et al., 2015).

In addition, wellness programs provide the ability for counselors to research their contributions to workplace wellness programs, thereby providing an opportunity to study counselor effectiveness. Research has shown that using health care professionals in disease management portions of wellness programs can lower costs. The focus of this manuscript has been to describe a framework for counselors to facilitate lifestyle management programs in corporate settings. Considerable sponsored research opportunities also are available, especially for worksite wellness programs targeted to underserved populations (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, 2016).



Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure

The authors reported no conflict of interest

or funding contributions for the development

of this manuscript.



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Yvette Saliba, NCC, is a doctoral student at the University of Central Florida. Sejal Barden, NCC, is an Associate Professor at the University of Central Florida. Correspondence can be addressed to Yvette Saliba, 851 South State Road 434, Suite #1070-170, Altamonte Springs, FL 32714,