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Workplace wellness programs try to stay the course

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — One of the words that has come to define the coronavirus pandemic and its fallout is this one:

Virtual.

This applies as much to the world of fitness and corporate wellness as it does most any other venture. As the phrase “working from home” became common parlance, local companies and businesses had to adapt on the fly once the pandemic gained traction in New Mexico.

“It’s been quite a whirlwind with changing corporate wellness to a virtual study,” said Sarita Loehr, director of health and wellness for Presbyterian Heath Care Services. “Everybody has had to ramp up.”

Presbyterian is one of the largest employers in the state, with about 14,000 employees. Among its list of 40 or so clients are the City of Albuquerque and the State of New Mexico. And there are, Loehr said, tens of thouands of New Mexicans whose wellness needs are handled through Presbyterian.

So the transition to virtual wellness was a significant undertaking.

“We were sent home mid-March; two weeks later, we had to very quickly start creating programs virtually,” Loehr said. “It was immediate. I don’t think we hardly blinked an eye before we had to get on it.”

Maybe 20% of Presbyterian’s health care program was virtual in nature prior to the pandemic, Loehr said. It is now 100%.

“We had to convert everything to a virtual offering,” said Loehr. “We had to pivot quickly. Many things we had to create from scratch. We had to be adaptable and creative in everything we did, in a meaningful and purposeful way.”

Loehr said employees or clients can find links to things like virtual dance classes or stretch vidoes and “sign up at their convenience.” Sometimes they are live, sometimes they are recorded.

“One size does not fit all,” she said. “We help create programs that fit their need. … Our clients have really loved it. The participation rate has increased because the need is there.”

Not every company has been able to sustain its pre-pandemic business model as it relates to corporate wellness programs.

As it’s accomplished so grimly with thousands of businesses and industries, the pandemic has managed to handcuff some companies’ blueprints to diversify.

Consider the Eye Associates of New Mexico, which budgets for its wellness program for its approximately 550 employees.

There were certain plans to expand their offerings in 2021, but those had to be delayed for obvious reasons.

“Most of the initiatives set to launch this year were derailed, unfortunately,” said Cris Todd, director of human resources. “We were really excited to do some of the things we had planned.”

U.S. Eagle Federal Credit Union employs about 250 people in Albuquerque, Farmington and Santa Fe. By the middle of March, they were sending employees home to work virtually.

But, said Nadine Buerger, the public relations and community engagement manager for U.S. Eagle, the company continues to emphasize what it can do for both its employees and for the community despite limitations presented by the fallout of COVID-19.

U.S. Eagle gives its employees a $180 yearly stipend to meet their health and wellness needs, whether that involves an active gym membership or facilitating the use of apps for options like dance classes, yoga or meditation. Also, annual weight loss and fitness challenges continue.

One of the credit union’s core principles, Buerger said, are walks that U.S. Eagle not only participates in but sponsors – such as walks for breast cancer awareness or Hike for Hunger. There are a small handful of them every year, contributing to various vital causes.

The walks continue – just not en masse.

“Everything is virtual,” Buerger said. “Our employees are incredibly passionate about these walks and supporting each other.”

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