Just over 15 years ago, the health and wellness job landscape looked vastly different, and less promising, than today. Erin Ratelis, the director of content development with Optum Resource Center for Health and Well-Being, knows this firsthand. She was wrapping up her bachelor’s degree in community health education at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, preparing to head into the workforce. Her goal was improving people’s health. However, at the time, there simply weren’t a lot of jobs geared toward the skill set of a health and wellness professional.
“When I started out, you really had to dig to find a wellness-related job opening,” says Ratelis, who is also an advisory board member for the online UW Bachelor of Science in Health and Wellness Management program. “Now, there’s this entire burgeoning business around health and wellness. Employers, health plans, entrepreneurs, and public entities all over the world are investing in the idea of creating a culture of health and well-being.”
After taking on a role as a health management consultant, and a return to school for her master’s degree in business communication, Ratelis landed a job at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. She worked in product development and management for a suite of wellness programs. As the demand for health and wellness professionals increased, so did the job opportunities. Eventually Ratelis accepted a job at Optum as a product marketer for a variety of wellness and decision support solutions.
Ratelis has since moved into a new role at Optum, focused on leading content development strategy. “I work with a variety of stakeholders, such as academics and internal subject matter experts. I partner with the professionals to develop topics and seed research relevant to our employer partners,” Ratelis says. “Our work is focused on helping employers create a culture of health through research-driven insights and perspectives.”
In her current role, Ratelis partners with individuals across the organization to develop free resources like white papers and webinars on a variety of health management topics. She leads the Annual Wellness in the Workplace Study (WIW), which tracks how employers approach health and wellness at work – from incentive strategies and emerging technology, to budget and staffing for wellness. One of Ratelis’ most meaningful projects along her professional journey, she says, has been the creation of the “Activate Audit,” an iPad-based tool that helps employers evaluate how well the physical work environment (e.g. cafeterias, vending machines, stairwells) supports positive daily health decisions.
“The results from our annual WIW study helped us see that employers are committing to wellness at work like never before,” Ratelis says. “Not only are they offering an array of health management programs, but they are increasing budgets and beginning to leverage the work environment to support good health decisions.”
The growing number of companies incorporating wellness plans means an increased demand for wellness professionals like Ratelis. She says that was a driving factor behind her decision to join the advisory board for the UW Bachelor of Science in Health and Wellness Management program. The online degree is a collaborative effort between UW-Extension and several campuses throughout the state. Having current professionals working with the academic leaders, Ratelis says, helps ensure students receive the most up-to-date information and professionally relevant training.
Ratelis notes that wellness professionals today need a solid foundation in both consumer and organizational psychology. She says they also need to understand how to approach wellness strategically, objectively evaluate program outcomes, and demonstrate how wellness fits into a larger business performance plan.
“I’m encouraged by the growth this industry is seeing. We are entering a period of innovation,” Ratelis says. “Different industries and fields, who share a common goal of behavior change, are starting to branch out and learn from each other. That willingness to learn is what is going to create the biggest opportunity for the health and wellness profession to thrive.”