Wellness Management: Interns In The Workplace – Energy, Enthusiasm And Real Work Experiences

Most wellness professionals know internship programs exist, and may have even been an intern at some point. Yet surprisingly few workplaces use interns in their wellness programs.

From our archive – as relevant today, maybe more so than when we first produced this report. Wellness Program Management Advisor spoke with William B. Baun, E.P.D., F.A.W.H.P., at the time manager of wellness programs at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. He has used interns for more than 20 years.

Baun’s programs target M.D. Anderson’s 16,000 employees. “I enjoy having interns around. They bring a renewed sense of energy and excitement about their chosen fields to the work environment. They ask questions that we have stopped asking ourselves. They cause us to look at processes that have gotten stagnant over time and help keep us abreast of the newest models and theories being taught in school.”

Since wellness is a broad field, a variety of schools are potential sources for internships.

Public Health
Exercise Science
Health Education
Corporate Wellness or Health
Community Health Education
Dietetics
Social Worker
Chaplaincy
M.D./Ph.D. (working on MPH projects)

Internships may be as short as a week or two, but typically run 30 to 60 days. For that reason Baun recommends a project-focused strategy. “With such a short amount of time, we give our interns a piece of a project.

“Whether it is the planning stage, marketing, implementation, or evaluation, we define our expectations, get them comfortable with their tasks, then walk away and let them run with it,” he said.

Baun recommends this approach for another reason.  “If you don’t have something specific for the interns to do, the staff will be constantly looking for something for them to do. And that takes time away from other responsibilities.”

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While project-driven internships are the most beneficial and efficient for all concerned, Baun stresses the importance of exposing the intern to a variety of learning experiences. Most importantly, give the intern personal time with the professional staff. “To really do an internship right, it is not just about the project, but sharing the literature you are reading and the resources you use. We put reading materials together for our interns each week.”

“Until their internship, most students are only exposed to the academics’ perspective of their chosen field. Most academics do not have much hands-on experience,” Baun said. “The intern learns from us how practitioners apply theory in a real-world environment.”

Areas where interns excel include:

Research
Teaching
Developing specific products/tools
Surveys
Be Aware Of What Your Intern Can And Shouldn’t Do

There are a few precautions when accepting interns. For obvious reasons, interns should not perform high-risk procedures unsupervised. Although he brings them along for the experience, Baun advises against allowing an intern to represent the wellness department in important corporate meetings.

The biggest potential drawback is the time investment. “If you bring in an intern for a specific project and he or she does not have the personality or skill to accomplish it, then it’s like having any employee who turns out not to be a good fit for the job. They mope, complain, that sort of thing,” Baun said.

In such situations, interns need even more time. “I have often looked at a project and said, ‘This would be a great intern project, but we just don’t have the time (to oversee them),’” Baun explained. “Say the project is an implementation project, and the intern is not a people person. He or she never faced that in school. This is someone you have to watch. If you don’t have the time, then what are you going todo?”

Baun tries to avoid that problem by carefully screening his intern applicants. “I ask them to bring in a portfolio of what they have done in the past. If they have no work experience, I ask them to show me things they are most proud of from school. Maybe it is a report or a class they taught. We talk about those items. From the discussion I begin to pick up on their strengths and where the intern might fit into the project. I conduct it much like a job interview, which is really a learning experience for the intern as well.”

Baun believes you get as much out of interns as you are willing to put into them. “We help them explore their strengths and weaknesses. After all, that’s how we all make our career decisions. If you treat interns as adults and part of the team, they will usually act accordingly. If you treat them like kids or just cheap labor, they will rise to that level of expectation.”

Because of M.D. Anderson’s location and reputation, Baun has no problem finding interns. However he advises wellness managers when approaching the intern coordinator in a school, “Be very specific in your needs and expectations. Describe the project and what the intern will learn from the experience. If the school does not have its own contract with defined learning expectations for the student, generate one on your end. It varies from school to school, but many expect a periodic report of hours worked, a student journal signed by a staff member, or a periodic ‘how-goes-it’ call from the intern coordinator.”

Reaching Intern Candidates

Baun emphasizes the importance of tapping into professional relationships in the area. “I have many friends and contacts at the local universities. I let them know about projects I am working on. They often have specific recommendations for a student with the skill sets I need.”

Another option when looking for interns is to do an online search. Many universities post their internship programs for interested businesses.

A common question is how much to pay an intern? It varies widely. Baun currently does not pay his interns. However he has paid a $500 per month stipend in the past and has known other companies that pay between $600 and $700 a month.

While students obviously desire a valuable learning experience, a primary focus for them is to turn their internship into a permanent job. According to Baun, “The stories are out there. Interns walk into a full-time job or receive a good reference that leads to a future job. If the intern does a good job, it is only right to help him or her find employment. I work really hard to place my interns.”

Baun feels a very real connection with his interns. “I recently heard from a woman who had been a dietetic intern with me in the 1980s. Another intern I had is now a very successful businesswoman who started her own company. She once said I was the one who started her on the road to success. I have another former intern who runs the Dell wellness program. You meet wonderful people along the way. It’s like creating a professional family tree. We have the opportunity to share a sense of what wellness means to us … pass on a little piece of our wellness soul to our interns, and they in turn pass it on to others. It’s really kind of neat.”

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