HR Administration

Southern Utah University: Optimas Gold Winner for Vision

By Andie Burjek

Nov. 21, 2016

southerutahunivlogoEmbracing the new may be difficult for institutions of higher education, but five years ago Southern Utah University slowly and successfully incorporated an employee wellness program.

The public university in Cedar City implemented its initiative, the Employee Engagement and Wellness Program, in 2011. It began when an annual biometric screening fair largely motivated the university’s workforce. The insurance provider that suggested the screening also suggested the concept of wellness as a way to decrease health care costs, and Renee Ballenger, the first-ever wellness coordinator at Southern Utah, hoped the university would actually see a return on investment in terms of health care costs.

“For the first four years of the program, I constantly — every semester — found myself grasping at straws to justify the existence and worthwhileness of the program,” wrote Ballenger in the Optimas application. “The barrier was that the administration only saw wellness to be that insurance provider’s promise.”

Although it took five years to see results, it has grown into a robust, holistic and constantly improving wellness program. What started out as a simple biometric screening fair is now a more complex, holistic wellness program with components like a weight management program, an educational series on financial wellness and chronic
disease prevention, and a “hearty and diverse” lunch-and-learn program.

The university moved wellness from the public relations to the human resources department two years ago, and that was key in increasing the program’s success, wrote Ballenger. Employee participation and wellness increased after the shift.

SUU has a vision for the future as well, including a bi-annual employee magazine, stress management education and a virtual wellness center for employees.

For its willingness to try wellness — typically a corporate trend — in the traditional environment of an academic institution, Southern Utah University is the 2016 Optimas Award Gold winner for Vision.

Read about the rest of our 2016 Optimas Winners.

Andie Burjek is an associate editor at


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