Better together: How UAA’s Kyra McKay is helping employees embrace wellness during the workday

by cmmyers  |   

Employee Wellness Practicum Coordinator Kyra McKay is on a mission to help university staff and faculty incorporate wellness into their workday routines. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

They say "sitting is the new smoking" and UAA Employee Wellness Practicum Coordinator Kyra McKay is on a mission to motivate staff and faculty across campus to get up and out of their office. It's no secret that Americans spend more time at work - averaging nine-hour workdays - and it's taking a toll on our health.

McKay is a 2016 graduate of UAA's Department of Health, Physical Education and Recreation (HPER), earning a B.S. in physical education with an emphasis in leadership in fitness.

As a senior in the program, McKay took a class with Jean Marcey, term assistant professor in HPER, and one of the class assignments was to lead wellness breaks for UAA employees. "The idea of having these wellness breaks was great, and removed some of the barriers keeping people from bettering their health and wellness," she said.

The Employee Wellness Program

UAA's Employee Wellness Program (EWP) was fairly new and McKay said there was not a lot of participation, but she was determined to stick with it because she believed in the mission. Growing up, she watched her mom struggle to fit wellness and exercise into her routine after working a full workday. "I wanted to do this for my mom," she said.

"I want employees to know that it's okay to take a break during the day," said McKay. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

The EWP was established in 2015 after a staff and faculty survey found that morale on campus was low. Staff Council reached out to HPER to help create a program that would not only provide staff and faculty an opportunity to get out of their offices for 20 to 30 minutes during the day, but also to meet new people from different departments and colleges across campus.

McKay was hired in the spring of this year to officially lead the EWP and has hit the ground running.

"Consistency is key when you're trying to help improve someone's health and wellness," McKay said. "I'm collaborating with a lot of the employees across campus, getting a lot of feedback and having a lot of fun."

Shifting perceptions

McKay has some pretty big hurdles to jump. Participation in the EWP is low, but she feels like she's making progress and is hopeful she can change the idea of how the eight-hour workday is structured.

"The hardest thing is changing the mindset of employees, which isn't bad, but I think it's bigger than that," she said. "There used to be this, 'I'll sleep when I die,' and that's just not good for you," McKay said of trying to change people's ideas of shaping the workday. "I want employees to know that it's okay to take a break during the day. We try to keep the breaks 15 to 30 minutes so it's not taking too much out of someone's day, and it's also important to know that these breaks don't have to be a part of their lunch."

McKay said it's good for people to get up and walk around during the day, whether it's filling up a water bottle, taking a lap around the building or walking to a meeting. Going long stretches sitting at a desk is hard on the body and makes it more difficult to be motivated to get active.

As a student, McKay interned with the Employee Wellness Program and when she graduated in 2016, kept on with the EWP until she was hired full time earlier this year. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

One of the biggest aspects of the EWP McKay wants people to know, is that it's not just focused on physical fitness - which she thinks a lot of people believe it is, and are immediately turned off or intimidated by that.  

"It's a holistic approach; it's not just about physical fitness, even though that is a part of this," McKay said, explaining that the EWP incorporates the Six Dimensions of Wellness, which focuses on mind, body and spirit to help guide people toward more mindful living. "I want everyone to feel that they can go to any of the wellness breaks. I think a lot of people think if it's not in their department or building, then they can't participate, but anyone is welcome to join any wellness break at any time."

The wellness breaks are a bonus opportunity to get out of the office for 15 to 30 minutes and make new friends on campus. McKay's theory is if there are happier faculty and staff on campus, that positive energy will directly translate and benefit students. It's a win-win for everyone.

Green and gold spirit

"When I was a student, I didn't really have the UAA pride - I'll admit it - but now that I'm a part of UAA, I see all the amazing people and all the amazing things that they're doing and how good it is," said McKay. She hopes that positive energy will spill over into university employees taking a little bit of self-care to attend a wellness break. "It's really the people who make my work exciting and if I can help improve their morale, they can do better work and will then be able to better help students and help them have a successful college experience."

In addition to the wellness breaks, McKay is working on bolstering the Employee Wellness website, which currently lists when and where staff and faculty can participate in a break this fall. Eventually, she says she'd like to create collateral for the page that includes handouts and worksheets providing employees with helpful ideas, tips and tricks to incorporate wellness into their daily routines.

"I really believe that this program will help improve morale and I want to enjoy the people I work with and enjoy my day," McKay said. "I think overall this is just about enjoying life a little bit while you're at work."

Written by Catalina Myers, UAA Office of University Advancement

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