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MIT Admissions gets a healthy makeover

Admissions Office forms a cross-departmental wellness program to help employees weather long workdays.
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More than 18,000 students applied to MIT this year, and on March 14 (Pi Day), the fortunate admitted students will be notified. For the admissions officers who make those selections, it marks the end of thousands of hours sifting through applications, reading student essays, and fervently debating who receives a coveted letter. During “reading season,” which runs from October through March, the MIT admissions committee lives and breathes applications, oftentimes working 10-hour days, six days a week.

“The act of sitting somewhere making decisions for 10 hours can get as physically stressful as it is cognitively taxing,” says Admissions Officer Chris Peterson. “It’s that much harder to make good, healthful choices when your entire day is spent making choices.”

In an effort to replace sore backs and sugary snacks with better options, last year’s admissions committee formed its own cross-departmental wellness program to help employees weather the tough hours a little easier. Joining forces with a clinical nutritionist, a program manager from Community Wellness@MIT Medical, and an ergonomics expert from the Environment, Health and Safety Office, the admissions team made several small changes that added up to big relief. These included adding healthier snack options, like snap peas and fruit, installing stand-up desks and second computer screens for those who wanted them, requiring team members to take a stretch-and-exercise break every 60 minutes, and providing ergonomic evaluations to optimize employees’ home and MIT office environments.

“The majority of the interventions did not cost anything and were easy for admissions to implement,” says Community Wellness Program Manager Caitlyn McCourt.

While the changes weren’t large in scope, they had, and continue to have, a huge impact. In addition to increasing efficiency and substantially boosting employee morale, Katie Kelley Metevier, assistant director of admissions, says that the changes also led to a cultural shift. Encouraging employees to find desk setups and office chairs that would work for them led to more open communication about being healthy in the workplace. Metevier, who suffers from sciatica as well as a repetitive stress injury in her wrist, says that the emphasis on personal wellness served as a valuable reminder that healthy choices should always be a prime consideration.

“I still have a sciatica problem but it’s a lot better than it has been in previous years because of having a foot rest and a special mouse pad and a good chair and having my laptop at a good height,” she says. “I think I’m much more aware of my posture and how I’m sitting in my set up and being ok with having that priority.”

Admissions isn’t the only department dealing with long working hours. To make these changes accessible to other departments as well, Maryanne Kirkbride, MIT Medical’s clinical director for campus life, is creating a wellness tool kit other departments can use to start similar initiatives. The goal, she says, is to create an office environment that makes the healthy choice the easy choice. 

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