To help injured workers recover, UCLA WorkStrong program goes virtual

The pandemic forced UCLA’s recreation centers to close, but employees with workplace injuries still got long-term care.

The University of California WorkStrong program at UCLA helps injured employees improve their health and fitness, promotes their recovery and aims to prevent reinjuries. Participants receive a six-month membership to gyms on the UCLA campus, 12 private sessions with a personal trainer and six personalized sessions with a licensed nutritionist, at no cost.

Now, the occupational health program has been redesigned to meet participants where they’re at: in the gym, at outdoor locations on campus or virtually, from the comfort of home. “Or they can do some of each,” says Alison Frink, WorkStrong program coordinator. “Everything is participant preference. We have more options now than we did before the pandemic.”

Frink says when the pandemic forced UCLA’s recreation centers to close, they knew they had to find a way to keep the program running.

“Since COVID hit, employees have been very open to doing everything they can to improve their health,” Frink says. “We worked hard to transition quickly to at-home options in order to keep supporting our injured workers at UCLA.”

Within a month, participants were asked if they would opt-in for virtual sessions, and the majority agreed. Because WorkStrong was quickly able to pivot, the number of program participants has not dropped much at all during the pandemic, Frink says.

“Traditional treatments take you to a certain point to where your injury is better,” Frink says, “but what about your whole-body mechanics, how you move, walk, sit down? It’s all a part of it.”

To date, more than 1,200 UCLA Health and Campus employees have enrolled in the program, which launched in 2012. To participate, employees need a recommendation from their workers’ compensation physician.

Adam Saby, MD, medical director of UCLA Occupational Health, says reinjuries are common in the workplace and that’s the area in which WorkStrong shines. “When a person has multiple versions of the same injury — constantly straining their back or hip muscles, developing tendonitis in the wrists, or neck pain from an unusual sitting arrangement at a workstation — those are the types of issues we want to address.”

Frink says their research found that at UC, employees who incur two workplace injuries within a 24-month period have a greater risk of future injuries. She adds that reinjuries are 23% lower than expected among UC workers who complete the program.

Dr. Saby says WorkStrong is more than just an exercise program — it’s a lifestyle change.

“The program addresses the totality of the person — not looking at one incident, but how we can prevent further incidents from happening, how we’re feeding our bodies and how we’re maintaining the health of our muscles, tendons, joints and bones,” he says.

“We’re looking at how we can get the person to rise above their previous baseline, because with this program they’re doing things they’ve never done before.”

When Telva Aguilar learned she had been referred to WorkStrong after being treated for a tear in her right arm, she couldn’t wait to get started. “Who wouldn’t?” says Aguilar, who works as a financial counselor at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. “It’s free and personal one-on-one training, at my pace. I needed it.”

Aguilar had been treated for lateral epicondylitis, commonly known as “tennis elbow.” The condition occurs when the tendons in the elbow are overloaded, often caused by repetitive computer mouse use.

Initially, she thought she’d be unable to take advantage of services the program offers because of the pandemic. Then she learned that WorkStrong was available virtually.

“I just brought my computer outside and it was really good. I enjoyed those times, and it did really help me,” says Aguilar. “Even through Zoom, it felt very personal.”

Aguilar, who also was diagnosed prediabetic, says her nutritionist helped her lower her blood glucose level by showing her a different way of looking at food and the quantities and types of foods she should eat. “Both the trainer and the nutritionist were informative, insightful and at the same time they were very gracious,” she says. “They don’t make you feel guilty.”

WorkStrong was the gentle push she needed to regain control of her health, Aguilar says.

“Sometimes we know the right things to do but we just need that motivation to do it,” she says.

Read more:

WorkStrong helps UCLA Health employees get fit, stay injury-free

Injured employees rebound with new strength

Jennifer Karmarkar is the author of this article.