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Working Well

Senior Living Facility Employees Benefit from Art Therapy

The Elder Care Alliance personalized its wellness program to the unique needs of its workforce is a truly novel way — ditching the wellness program of the tech startup bro and creating an art therapy program.
Elder Care Alliance Employees participate in creative activities in the Create Art at Work program. Photo courtesy of Dr. Erin Partridge. Photo courtesy of Dr. Erin Partridge.

Elder Care Alliance Employees participate in creative activities in the Create Art at Work program. Photo courtesy of Dr. Erin Partridge.

Last month I asked you readers if your company has ever incorporated something creative or art-based in your wellness program. One organization, Elder Care Alliance, a nonprofit senior living organization based in California, responded with a unique program they launched a year ago called Create Art at Work. I enjoyed this as a mini-case study and hope that you find some ideas here that could work at your organization as well!

Management at the nonprofit knew that it needed to do something novel to address the issues its workforce was facing, including stress, burnout and turnover, said with Rosemary Jordan, vice president of business development and strategy at Elder Care Alliance. Jordan leads the team that launched the Create Art at Work program.

The direct care employees at Elder Care Alliance have emotional, physically demanding and fast-paced jobs even with meals and breaks planned in their schedules. But they also see their job — taking care of older adults — as a calling and do this type of work to make a difference in their lives.

“We were feeling, especially because we’re a not-for-profit organization focused on taking care of our employees as well as our residents, that we needed to do something different,” Jordan said.

Traditional wellness programs did not fit this workforce, she added. “They weren’t, in our experience, catapulting us toward results the way we needed them,” she said.

Then Dr. Erin Partridge joined the company in January 2017 as an experimental researcher in residence. As a licensed art therapist, she had both practical and research experience in how to implement an art therapy program. Also, there was already an art therapy program for the residents of the living facility, so bringing something similar to the organization’s workforce was a manageable idea.

One thing I’d like to note here: When I blogged about this topic before, I focused on art as a social event for employees, not as an actual evidence-based, therapeutic exercise. What this organization is doing is very different and actually aligned to the real definition of art therapy.

“We’re not just going to paint by numbers or play with clay. While it is fun, we don’t see it as entertainment or play,” Jordan said. “It’s not a one-off. In fact, we’re trying to situate this as truly embedded in the day-to day work experience. We’re trying to normalize it and make creative arts practice like a fully legitimate thing to be doing.”

Rosemary Jordan, vice president of business development and strategy at Elder Care Alliance, leads the Create Art at Work Program.

Rosemary Jordan, vice president of business development and strategy at Elder Care Alliance, leads the Create Art at Work Program.

There are a few activities that are designed to help employees in different ways, Jordan said. Group journaling is one that individuals can do on their own time while they’re drinking coffee in the morning, or any part of the day they wish. They all respond to the same prompt — which can be something thoughtful or something as simple as “Pie or Cake?” — and everyone’s contributions are accumulated in the same place. Even the “Pie vs. Cake” prompt led to positive results, inspiring a bake-off that engaged many employees.

The organization also hosts a “creative break” once a month in which anyone can drop in on a two-hour-long open studio and participate in a creative project next to your colleague. This is designed to be more collaborative than the individual journaling.

Another area they’re working on is getting people in analytical or leadership roles to abandon PowerPoints and boring charts and think more creatively about how they present ideas. This is difficult because many of these people have been in the workforce for 20 or 30 years, and through job training or business school they’ve learned how to do things a certain way. It takes a while to get people out of their comfort zones, Jordan said, but it’ liberating when it happens. She pitched a business plan to the CEO via a gallery walk rather than a traditional PowerPoint.

This program stuck with the Elder Care Alliance Employees while other wellness programs didn’t for a few reasons, Jordan said. Many people in the workforce don’t speak English as a first or primary language, and art can appeal to anyone no matter what language they feel comfortable with. “It’s seldom to see wellness programs that are truly accessible in terms of preferred language,” Jordan said. “But the language of art is universal. Everyone can feel confident and competent.”

One activity in which leadership participated in was this tree mural in which each member of the leadership team, responding to a prompt, contributed a leaf to the tree. Photo courtesy of Dr. Erin Partridge.

One activity in which leadership participated in was this tree mural in which each member of the leadership team, responding to a prompt, contributed a leaf to the tree. Photo courtesy of Dr. Erin Partridge.

Also, the gamification and competitive elements that are common in many types of wellness programs don’t appeal to everyone. It might appeal to populations like employees in a start-up bro culture, but not the employees at Elder Care Alliance.

“When we’re talking about a 45-year-old mom who was born in Honduras and struggling with three jobs; that’s not really going to get it done for her,” Jordan said. “It’s not going to feel meaningful or relevant.”

Finally, many wellness programs require a lot of commitment and many gadgets, which just aren’t practical or realistic for these employees at their worksite. By focusing on art therapy, the employer created an accessible space for employees, and all employees have to do is come.

“It’s flipping the script on whose responsible, which has a lot of currency right now,” Jordan said. “Frankly, I think there’s been a little too much of finger wagging and putting a lot of pressure on employees to be better at wellness.”

I enjoy this wellness program example for many reasons. Most importantly, it’s truly personalized to the organization’s workforce, which isn’t something I hear too often as a wellness blogger. Yes, everyone loves to say their program is personalized and holistic, but oftentimes it sounds like a simple reiteration of any other wellness program.

The other part of this example that I enjoy is how this program is utilized in the health care industry. No surprise, the health care industry is a stressful place to work, and burnout is common.

Also Read: Burnout in Health Care and Beyond

I love seeing these real-world examples of how to incorporate the stress-reducing qualities of creating art in the workplace. Thanks for sharing, Elder Care Alliance!

The “On My Mind Prompt” is one activity which program participants have been able to interpret hundreds of ways. Photo courtesy of Dr. Erin Partridge.

The “On My Mind Prompt” is one activity which program participants have been able to interpret hundreds of ways. Photo courtesy of Dr. Erin Partridge.

Final Thoughts:

Not related to the art therapy program, Jordan has many interesting things to say about wellness in the workplace, specifically around mental health and holistic well-being. I found this conversation to be especially relevant after seeing all the conversation around mental health in the workplace following the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain.

“Our national conversation about mental health is still in its infancy,” Jordan said. While it’s great that there’s now more public discussion about mental health and that people are trying to reduce stigma, there’s more work to be done. There’s more than just depression, but sometimes depression is all people focus on. There’s a broader conversation to be had about mental health.

My question for readers: Besides depression, what are other areas of mental health you can focus on or you have been focusing on in the workplace, via benefits, wellness programs or another vessel? Feel free to share!

Andie Burjek is a Workforce associate editor. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.

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