A One of a Kind Advocate: The Creation of Institutional Wellness

The following is an excerpt from The 50: HR Leaders Reimagining the Filipino Organization. Authored by Patricia Yap, this chapter is titled, “A One of a Kind Advocate: The Creation of Institutional Wellness.” In it, Anna Katrina Bersamin, the HR Director of De La Salle Zobel School, is interviewed about how the organization executes its strategy in empowering and enabling people to do their best work.

Company wellness programs are typically designed to improve the overall physical health of employees. Wellness activities can range from onsite fitness sessions such as yoga and meditation-breaks, to offsite incentives and memberships to nearby gyms. What’s not usually targeted in company wellness programs are facets of well-being beyond the physical—Anna Katrina Bersamin is changing that.


Bersamin is the present HR Director of De La Salle Zobel (DLSZ). Prior to DLSZ, Bersamin already knew of the institution's very strong values-driven, mission-driven, and service-oriented culture because she is an alumnus. “The sense of loyalty and nurture is very strong in Zobel. You can really see how the people genuinely care for each other,” she said.

In 2018, Bersamin introduced the Zobel So Well program, a holistic wellness approach that has since then strengthened the institution's foundation. Some of the activities included in Zobel So Well were psychological first aid training, financial literacy and guidance education, physical health sessions, and mental health care programs. Through these, all eight facets of wellness were targeted, with the physical, mental, and financial facets being the areas of greatest focus as these are DLSZ’s weak points, said Bersamin.

Unlike other institutional wellness programs, the Zobel So Well program became fruitful because Bersamin did not fall into the thinking that physical wellness alone was enough—this is the fundamental flaw of most wellness programs. According to a short study by the Perelman School of Medicine, companies do not usually take into consideration that some people need more help than others, and that this help does not rely on fitness alone.

Most organization’s programs are designed this way because it lowers medical insurance and healthcare costs. Sometimes, these programs focus so much on the physical—again, only one aspect of wellness—that they can even do harm.

Not everyone feels comfortable stepping on a scale and seeing their weight. Not everyone feels better after a yoga session when all they were focused on were the eyes that seemed set on them. Not everyone will continue to keep fit back home after one to two sessions of aerobics in the office. So some employees may not improve at all and might even end up losing more confidence and productivity.

Some companies do not even provide wellness programs for all of its employees, electing to offer them to only a privileged few. But in order to have a productive workplace, the work environment must first be a healthy one, according to the World Health Organization—and a healthy workplace must be inclusive for all.

In contrast, at Zobel, all employees can participate in Zobel So Well.

“It doesn’t really matter what kind of employee we’re serving. They can be a teacher, a student, a faculty or non-faculty, but overall it’s just about empathy. You put yourself in their shoes and ask yourselves, ‘What do I need right now? What am I feeling? What kind of HR do I need?’” Bersamin emphasized.

As mentioned, one of the weakest areas of wellness the DLSZ employees experienced was personal finance. Because of this, one of the features included in the program is the formation of partnerships with financial providers. These people assist, educate, and guide the staff with their financial goals.

Focusing on other areas of wellness is strategic. Bersamin wanted people to understand that if one facet of a person is unwell, then everything else will get affected. “You may be very physically fit, but if you’re constantly stressing out about all your debts, that will eventually take a toll on the other facets of your wellness,” she added.

Bersamin considers Zobel So Well as one of the “smallest things with the biggest impact” that she’s accomplished as an HR professional and mental health advocate. Prior to the program, she noticed that most employees were just glued to their desks day-in and day-out; repeating the same tasks over and over without much vigor and energy.

While companies simplify their wellness programs to reduce costs, they don’t realize how properly investing in it could lead to better economic results. Researchers from the Kansas State University said effective wellness programs can reduce employee absences, presenteeism, and overall health costs over time.

Now when someone makes a healthy choice, she’d hear ‘Oh! Zobel So Well ‘yan!’ echo through the halls. It’s a breath of fresh air to meet someone like Bersamin. Many HR practitioners do not focus on wellness but Bersamin believes that if a person is unwell, their productivity, mood, and overall relationship towards others and the workplace will be negatively affected.

Researchers from the University of Chicago and Harvard published a study on the effects of workplace wellness programs on employee health, productivity, and economic outcomes. In this study, the researchers found that employees who engaged in company wellness programs had healthier behaviors. And a SAGE Publications journal concluded that health promotion in any company should be multifaceted, just like what Bersamin is advocating for.

They know the program works when they see the quality of the relationships of their employees improve. “As an HR Director, one of my jobs is to listen to the stories the employees tell. So I really focus on these things. Sure I collect data, but the data I obtain only becomes more rich when I listen to their stories,” she said.

And not only does the relationship improve on the peer-to-peer level, but on the student-teacher relationship as well. When teachers come into Bersamin’s office saying how grateful they were and how they’ve been getting better at relating to their students, Bersamin knows that she has succeeded in improving the DLSZ culture.

In support of this, the same SAGE Publications study said that a successful wellness program requires “an advocate who functions as the initiator and leader for program development”—exactly what Bersamin has become for DLSZ.

Even during the lockdown, Bersamin made sure to regularly communicate and check on their institution’s employees. She’s been in close contact with DLSZ’s administration and brothers. She’s thankful for their generosity, support and especially understanding of their employees’ wellness. The “no work, no pay” does not apply to their staff. This ensures her that their people are well-supported during these times and that this will greatly contribute to their wellness.

Bersamin just wants what’s best for the people she works and cares for. “It’s really simple—it’s really just about enabling the people and empowering them to do their best work, and giving them the support they need to be able to do that. I might not always know what these people are going through, but what I know is that everyone needs someone to be there for them,” she said.