The McDowell County Health Coalition, MEDA and the McDowell Chamber of Commerce will take part in a $25,000 research initiative with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that will seek to improve the health and wellness for local workers.

The Health Coalition’s Workplace Wellness Committee will partner with the McDowell Economic Development Association (MEDA) and the McDowell Chamber of Commerce on a $25,000 research initiative. The initiative will seek input and cooperation from roughly 400 employers located in McDowell County. Funding for the research is provided through a grant from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, according to a news release.

The grant will support the efforts of several researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. Dr. Laura Linnan will lead a data collection team to poll businesses in McDowell County about their current health programming and their interests in future programming.

In addition, her team will investigate global trends in workplace wellness. The researchers will work with local employers and McDowell County Health Coalition volunteers starting this month and will submit a final report April through May 2015. There will be two phases to the research.

Phase one will include a survey to all 400-plus employers, whose input and participation will be essential in creating a complete report. Phase two will consist of a smaller panel of inquires with 21 selected employers: seven small employers, seven medium employers and seven large employers.

Phase two will also include interviews with five employees per company. The research project will help meet four out of five of the 2012 McDowell County Community Health Assessment priorities that involve tobacco use, healthy eating and active living, substance abuse and behavioral health, and access to care.

“This is a very exciting and big opportunity for McDowell County, its employers, and its employees,” said County Manager Chuck Abernathy, who is also the co-chairman of the Health Coalition’s Workplace Wellness Committee. “This will be a first time initiative in reviewing such a large number of employers in one region at one time. This should give us a factual innovative way to improve the health of our neighbors and by default the companies where they are employed, or future employers to the region. As co-chair for the McDowell Health Coalition’s Workplace Wellness Committee this will also help us determine our next steps in our strategic plan.”

During the nine-month research process the researchers will assess best practices regarding workplace wellness nationally, and internationally. They will also obtain feedback from existing employers in McDowell County regarding current wellness practices, interests, suggestions and concerns. The researchers will also focus on the employees and collect information regarding their interests, concerns and suggestions for successful worksite wellness programs. From this information locally and the best practices globally, the researchers will finalize the research with a prepared report for the Workplace Wellness Committee.

The report will be a “roadmap” for increasing adoption of Workplace Wellness programs and a general guide for successful implementation.

“What we are seeing evolve through the Health Coalition’s Workplace Wellness Workgroup is a desire by the Coalition and its partners to transform the understanding of health for the community,” said Chamber Executive Director Steve Bush, who is also the other co-chairman of the committee. “We spend a majority of our day at work, and employers realize that they need and want healthy employees. To do that, we are not just defining health as the typical physical activity. Yes it does include that but we are looking at health from a holistic view: mind, body, and spirit. Our workforce gives a lot to the employers and it is our responsibility to make sure we are taking care of them for the sake of themselves and their families, but for the sake of our community as a whole as well.”

The initial discussion with the researchers has created significant excitement within the Coalition and is quickly spreading to its partners. This is due in part to the scope of the research. Such a large scope is likely to catch the attention of more researchers. Linnan’s team has a wide array of federally-funded, worksite-based research studies and believes results from this initial project may lead to other large, exciting research opportunities for McDowell County in the future.

“With health as a prevalent topic in the business sector, we anticipate more efforts to assist employers and their employees in forming healthy initiatives,” said Joshua Kennedy, executive director of the McDowell Health Coalition. “As the Health Coalition, we are proud to see our partners taking the lead regionally to help build the programs and policies for healthy opportunities that work for all. We would encourage those contacted by Dr. Linnan’s team to do what they can to answer the call. We are all responsible in making McDowell a healthy community.”

Anticipated long-term outcomes of the research will include the McDowell Health Coalition partnering with MEDA, and other partners, focusing on the implementation of strategies developed during the nine-month research phase. Both partners will be looking for increased participation by employees in healthy options such as, increased physical activity, lower body mass index (BMI), decreased sick time, increased productivity, and lower healthcare costs. The partners also hope to build employer knowledge and skill of healthy opportunities, and to increase employers’ capacity to implement evidence-based workplace wellness programs.