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Bears Business Brief: Are wellness programs worth it?

headshot Richard Ollis
Richard Ollis

Do wellness programs really produce meaningful results? Many businesses and employees have their doubts. However, organizations that take a more practical view are committed to the cause. Simply put, healthy employees are more productive, absent less often, and serve clients more effectively.

In June, the Wellness Council of America held its annual board retreat at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Both WELCOA and Mayo Clinic are leading the evolution of corporate wellness across America.

Many organizations realize that wellness efforts can deliver return on investment, but measuring that ROI has been problematic. A mobile workforce, rising health care costs, rising drug costs and an aging population make comparisons challenging. What has been discovered, though, is that a well-executed wellness strategy improves attraction and retention of employees. Many employees value help with nutrition, exercise, stress reduction, personal development and overall well-being. Personalized programs based on employees’ specific needs and desires are proving to be quite effective.

Several trends are evolving in wellness. One new trend is an understanding that activity is different from physical fitness. A 30-minute workout just can’t significantly improve health if the rest of your day is spent with sedentary work and home habits. The Mayo Clinic and Dr. James Levine are promoting focusing on movement throughout the day through a program called Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT). Let’s face it, we have engineered a lot of activity out of our lives — autos, elevators, and computers are just a few examples of how we’ve decreased movement from our day.

The concept is fairly simple. Analyze your day, then change any sedentary habits you find into more active habits. Standing desks, standing meetings and walking phone calls are just a few ways you can add activity back into your day. Juststand.org and workwhilewalking.com will get you started with ideas. Or search online, “Dr. James Levine” for videos, books and other resources on the topic.

Another area receiving significant attention is resiliency. Our lives can be stressful, and how we think (coupled with other habits) can be harmful at best and debilitating at worst. As humans, we previously used stress (fight or flight) to survive. Today, we often create stress without realizing that much of it is self-induced, brought out by trivial things that we allow to be part of our day. Road rage, work drama and minor relationship issues can create undue stress; and, some, if not most, of the issues don’t really even matter.

Some suggested practices promoted by the Mayo Clinic include deep breathing, meditation, thoughts of gratitude, flexible expectations and healthy sleep habits. Being aware of your triggers and understanding how to improve how you respond to them can make a difference in resiliency or bouncing back. A book written by Dr. Amit Sood, “The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress Free Living,” is a good resource. Other resources can be accessed online at www.allaboutgratitude.com and www.happify.com.

Although traditional methods such as health assessments, physical fitness, smoking cessation and nutrition are still effective and popular, a customizable program where the employee ultimately designs his own plan is becoming more prevalent. This approach allows the employee to become a more active participant in the program by developing a plan to meet his own needs, increasing the chance that the employee will stay with the program. It takes more effort upfront to have the employee participate in program design, but the strategy has proven far more successful for employee success and satisfaction.

Corporate wellness is no longer a fad or trend. It’s become a strategy for many progressive companies to promote health, engage employees and improve employee attraction and retention. Think about it — companies that invest in improving the health and well-being of their people will become the most preferred places to work. And if employees feel valued and cared for, their levels of satisfaction and performance will improve — which will also result in positive benefits to the employer.

Richard Ollis is CEO of Ollis/Akers/Arney, an employee owned business and insurance advisory firm. He serves on the national board for the Wellness Council of America and attended the annual meeting at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

This article appeared in the July 26th edition of the News-Leader and can be accessed online here.

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Online cybersecurity program ranked second in nation

Top 10 Logo Missouri State University’s online Cybersecurity program was ranked second in the nation by Online MBA Today.

More than 350 online MBA programs in cybersecurity were ranked using five factors: estimated tuition cost, accreditation, early career salary, prestige and overall graduation rates.

Protecting personal data

Cybersecurity professionals work to keep information systems safe from various hazards, including theft and compromise. The increasing global digital dependency has produced a job boom for these professionals. Online MBA cybersecurity programs offer flexibility in combination with accessibility, which is ideal for professionals already in the work force.

To view the complete rankings click here.

Missouri State also offers a complete Cybersecurity Master’s Program separate from the MBA.

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Master’s before a PhD, a Sound Investment

Nevels Headshot
Garrett Nevels

By Garrett Nevels, MBA student, Graduate Assistant

Life as an Industry

As a business student, I often look at individuals as a company and life as an industry. Perhaps this is an over simplified view of the world. However, this simplification can sometimes lead to answers that often get overlooked in the hustle and bustle of today’s society.

Often in business if a company is not growing, they may as well be dying. In order to grow as people/companies, we must invest. For this metaphor investing will be education. For me, investing in an MBA was a simple decision. In order to stay competitive in the industry of life I needed to invest in myself. For many business students this is an obvious and easy choice; invest in a Masters to stay competitive in the industry.

Now as we all know, or don’t know, investing is a confusing matter. Just saying…the word “investments” may send shivers down your spine as you imagine a man in suspenders on Wall Street on the verge of an aneurysm as he looks at the thousands of possible investments available. Many students are faced with the choice of investing in a Master’s Degree, or a PhD. This choice bears a lot of weight. I have learned a lot in my years at Missouri State University, and I would like to explain to you why a Master’s Degree is a safe, but incredibly lucrative investment.

Risk and Reward

Now the cardinal rule with investing is simple: risk vs rewards. Only make an investment if the reward is greater than the degree of risk.  In this zany little metaphor I’ve cooked up, risk will represent rejection, and reward will represent accomplishment and contentment.  A Master’s Degree is the right investment for you to maximize your reward. Perhaps you’re thinking “Well, if I want a big reward I should just hop on the doctorate train, right?” Not so fast.

Minimizing Risk

PhD chances are, you’ve dreamt of those three little letters. You’ve closed your eyes at night and counted P’s, H’s, and D’s instead of sheep. You have had your dream school picked out for years. Only one problem, you need to get in.  But how? How can your wonderful dream be put to a screeching halt so quickly? Surely there must be a way to minimize the risk of rejection? A business student’s solution; invest.

Investing in a Master’s degree will improve your chances of getting accepted into the PhD program of your dreams, not number two or three on the list. Master’s degrees provide time to broaden your knowledge and the skills necessary to be successful in PhD programs. Many Doctorate programs only take exceptional individuals and Master’s Degree is a sound investment to becoming one.

Market Research

In business, we spend copious amounts of time researching an industry before investing in it. We want a “Return on Investment.” A Master’s Degree provides time to research the field you are considering for a Doctorate. We test drive cars before we buy them, why would we not test drive our possible life’s work? A doctorate is a large commitment that could pose abysmal risk if an individual is not certain they are content with that investment. A Master’s Degree can provide you with the proper research data to be confident that you have minimized your risk so that you can maximize your reward.

A Healthy Economy

When many industries are succeeding, we all enjoy the benefits of a healthy economy. Ben Franklin once said “An investment in knowledge, pays the best interest.” So, as a business student, I can confidently tell you, investing in a Master’s Degree before a Doctorate is an excellent way for you to reap the rewards of your investment.

This article appeared in the June 29, 2016 Graduate College Blog and can be accessed online here.


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A mother – and a computer – can differentiate a baby’s cry

Dr. S Brahnam

As you ask a hologram in an airport for directions, chat with a bot on a computer, or even ask Siri for your schedule, there’s no denying technology is changing the world. Dr. S. Brahnam is at the forefront of some of these developments.

One of her many research projects was to develop the machine learning algorithm called the Infant Classification of Pain Expressions. ICOPE was designed to recognize distressed facial expressions in neonatal babies, and it was the first of its kind. Infants at Mercy hospital were photographed while they were experiencing a number of benign nonpain stressors and an acute pain stimulus (the heel lance needed for the state-mandated blood exam).

“Are they in pain or not? You can’t tell because they cry all the time,” joked Brahnam. Furrowed brows and certain mouth or eye shapes can be tell-tale signs, but this system helps to identify pain even if nurses are busy or face blind.

Now she’s preparing to look deeper with the use of video equipment which will not only see the expressions but will measure heart rate, respiration rate or even changes in pixel colors to enhance the ability to classify pain expressions.

Cry with pain
Series of baby facial expressions showing crying due to pain
Cry without pain
Series of baby facial expressions showing crying with no associated pain

The expressions in these photos were used to help Brahnam develop the Infant Classification of Pain Expressions (ICOPE) system. Infants at Mercy hospital were photographed while they were experiencing a number of benign nonpain stressors and an acute pain stimulus. Photos provided by S. Brahnam.

Technology can be art

Dr. Brahnam looks at a skull

Photo by Bob Linder

As a former artist, Brahnam has always been interested in faces and expressions, so when she went back to school, her dissertation actually was to build an artificial artist. In order to do so, she had to train a computer to recognize specific traits and teach it to see people like human beings see people.

First, she developed a dataset of faces that people judged according to a set of traits, and then trained machines to recognize people that looked trustworthy versus untrustworthy, dominate versus submissive, and so on.

“I used facial recognition technology to classify faces according to people’s impressions of faces. I then produced an algorithm to generate from this model novel faces that were calculated to produce specific impressions on people. Artists do something similar when they draw people,” she said. “In this research I was able to show that it was possible for machines to see the social meanings of a person’s physical appearance and reproduce it – something a chatbot might want to do. People adjust their appearances for different occasions. Why not chatbots?” This is a technology Brahnam calls smart embodiment.

But how do you teach a computer?

It all starts with building an algorithm, a training set and a testing set. You begin by showing the computer something from the training set – handwritten letters, for example. The system will guess based on the information pre-programmed in the algorithm. If incorrect, adjustments are made until it can guess correctly. According to Brahnam, the testing set is used to see how well the computer can extrapolate information or how well it can learn when given something new.

“We now live in a world of lots of data – huge stock piles of data. Our brains have not evolved in a big data environment. We can’t handle lots of different data and this is where machines can be very good.”

A ‘cathedral of classifiers’

While processing lots of big data isn’t a human’s forte, Brahnam noted that we are more capable of distinguishing patterns than machines, especially in noisy environments, “because we have this evolutionary history behind us.” Infants and toddlers, she explained, find recognizable patterns, shapes and letters even in a cluster of clutter.

Much of her work deals with developing and improving multi-classifier systems that have many different learning algorithms working together on lots of different data. For example, to detect cancer, there could be a machine with many classifiers running simultaneously, each individually responsible for analyzing demographics, imagery, laboratory readings or instrumental readings. Putting the analyses together, a doctor could get a full picture of whether cancer was present.

“If we have gigantic systems working together, we think that we can make a general purpose classifier system, at least for certain classes of problems. That’s another thing that we are working really hard on: this gothic cathedral of classifiers.”

One way that a multiclassifier system works is for different classifiers to look at different aspects of a problem or data set. The different conclusions are then averaged for a final decision. The story of the blind men and the elephant illustrates the value of this approach. Some people touch the tusk of an elephant and say, “Hmm. It’s made out of stone.” Another person touches the tail and says, “No, it’s fluffy. I think this is the end of a drapery.” Another person hits the legs and says, “This is definitely a tree trunk.” That would be kind of like the classifier systems. Each one is getting different information that if you combine the total picture, you might get an elephant.

This article was written by Nicki Donnelson and appeared in the June 28th, 2016 edition of Mind’s Eye. It can be accessed online here.

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Bears Business Brief: Brexit: What you want to know – in about 500 words

By: James Philpot

James Philpot photo
James Philpot

Much has been rightly made of the recent U.K. vote to leave the European Union. If you are like me, when you see a Brexit news item you tell yourself you really should read about it. Then, a second or two later, you turn the page to check on your favorite stocks, sports team or soap opera. Here, for your convenience, is a brief guide to the what, why, and possible consequences of Brexit.

Exactly what happened? The EU is the most comprehensive of several treaties among European states regulating trade, defense, travel, immigration and economic/social policy. The EU’s 28 member states form a single market supporting the free movement of labor, capital, goods and services among member countries. The EU has its own government with authority to enact uniform laws concerning agriculture, trade and economic development. The EU allows member states to leave the union, and British voters, in heavy turnout, voted 52 percent to 48 percent to do so. Not every European country is a party to every European treaty, and it is worth noting that the U.K. was never part of the Euro Zone (single currency) or the Shengen Agreement (abolished passport and border controls among European countries).

Why leave the EU? British voters expressed several reasons for leaving the EU. The U.K. has a strong, historic sense of national identity apart from Europe. The Brexit vote reflects this sovereignty attitude and response to an unelected, unaccountable bureaucracy in Brussels issuing edicts that have the full force and effect of law in the U.K. Immigration and employment issues also played a part. The EU requires member states to allow citizens of any other EU country to enter and seek employment. It can be easier for an unskilled Romanian to gain permanent employment in the U.K. than it is for a skilled American or Australian. As a result, the U.K. has seen an influx of unskilled Europeans competing with Britons for jobs.

Fear of “economic contagion” also motivated Brexit. Contagion happens when—like a disease—economic troubles spread among countries. Strong and restrictive economic relationships between countries increase the likelihood of economic contagion. While still one of the strongest economies in Europe, the U.K. has shared in the continent’s chronic stagnant growth in income and rising unemployment.

Economic effects on the U.S. The day after the vote, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 4 percent, a short-term response to increased uncertainty, fear that operating costs for U.S. firms servicing EU countries from the U.K. would increase, and bank losses on euro and pound market making. Since Brexit, both the euro and pound have depreciated against the U.S. dollar, leading us to expect a short-term increase in U.S. imports from and decrease in U.S. exports to the U.K. and EU due to the increased buying power of the dollar. Longer term, as trade between the U.K. and the EU becomes more expensive in the absence of free trade, we may see U.S. exports to the U.K./EU increase. That is, the U.K. will substitute U.S. imports to replace some discontinued EU imports; the EU may follow suit, boosting U.S. exports to the region.

 The exit of the U.K. from the EU is a historic event that will have significant short-term and long-term global impact. However, Brexit will not, by itself, cause catastrophe for the U.K., other European countries, or the United States.

Dr. James Philpot is a Certified Financial Planner® and is Associate Professor of Finance at Missouri State University. Statements in this column are intended for educational and informational use only, and are not to be construed as investment advice.

This article appeared in the July 9th, 2016 edition of the News-Leader and can be accessed online here.

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