Wheaton taps into employees' passion for environmentalism

April 15, 2012

Receptive staff welcomes peer coaching, leadership on green initiatives


Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare and its facilities have identified many ways that they can reduce their impact on the environment. All require staff effort — and in many cases, behavior change — to implement.

The system had success in enlisting employees in its green initiatives by tapping into their natural concern for the environment and ensuring they have the information they need to act upon that concern.

"We have found that employees are willing to change (to be more environmentally friendly) — they just need to know how to do it," said Randy Vorland, director of environmental services for Wheaton's Iowa operations, which include three hospitals and a network of clinics.

By locating the most passionate environmentalists in the system, recruiting them to green teams, working with them to build interest among their colleagues, and by helping all staff understand how to conserve resources and reduce waste and environmental harm, Wheaton is building momentum behind greening the system.

Formalizing efforts
Wheaton has corporate offices in Wheaton, Ill., and Glendale, Wis, and it operates in four states. Its 13 hospitals and its network of primary care, long-term care and housing facilities are all sponsored or cosponsored ministries of the Wheaton Franciscan Sisters. With protection of the earth a part of the sisters' charism, it also is a priority for their sponsored ministries, and so many Wheaton facilities long have been undertaking environmental initiatives.

About five years ago, Wheaton system-level sponsors and leaders decided to make environmentalism a system priority leveraging the sincere, but sometimes piecemeal efforts of individual facilities. The system established an Environmental Sustainability Council of about two dozen top leaders from headquarters and from each Wheaton region to set the broad strategies.

That council convened a sub-team, the GrassRoots Environmental Awareness Team, or GREATeam for short. The group of about a half dozen leaders determines the types of initiatives the facilities might pursue to carry out the council's strategic goals. And, each Wheaton region (and some Wheaton facilities) established green teams to do the boots-on-the-ground implementation. Employees volunteer for these teams.

The green teams are pursuing such strategies as reducing energy use; cutting facilities' waste, particularly by increasing recycling; sharing best practices around the system; and meeting measurable standards set by the Environmental Sustainability Council.

At Wheaton's two All Saints campuses in Racine, Wis., the green team is implementing single-stream recycling, eliminating Styrofoam and recycling batteries, while considering ways to reduce pharmacy waste to help ensure unused medications do not end up in a landfill. At Wheaton Franciscan-St. Joseph Campus in Milwaukee, the green team is promoting a "Lights Out" energy saving program and contributing to the success of aluminum and cardboard recycling efforts. It is considering using a rain barrel water-collection system for watering plantings. Some Wheaton facilities are doing this already. Others have organized ride-share programs for employees and replaced paper towels in the restrooms with hand dryers. Some are investigating options for recycling blue wrap, a material made of a polypropylene polymer used to keep toiletries, medical devices and surgical instruments sterile.

Competing priorities
Change is not without its challenges. Implementation of green programs requires leaders to buy in to the changes, departments to put new procedures in place and employees to forgo old habits.

Health care facilities have many competing priorities, and so it may be difficult to keep hospital leaders and staff focused on environmentalism. To counter this drift, Wheaton's green teams try to explicitly connect environmental efforts to Wheaton's values, said Erica Weber, Wheaton manager of mission services. Even so it's no easy feat to get thousands of people to change rote behaviors and adjust to sorting trash into waste baskets and single-stream recycling bins, said Marianne Koch, director of hospitality services for All Saints. Also, said Alison von Brown, administrative assistant for environmental services at St. Joseph, it is difficult for health care professionals to take time out of their jam-packed days to attend meetings related to green efforts and policies. That said, employees want to be environmentally responsible, and if they can participate in greening efforts, they do.

Concern for the environment
Wheaton staff members' enthusiasm for protecting the earth was confirmed in a survey and pledge Wheaton issued last summer through an online communication to all associates.

Modeled after a tool that one of Wheaton's housing ministries had found useful, the survey asked respondents which of 20 green tasks they routinely undertook. Respondents were asked to commit to two additional behaviors from the list. The survey plumbed respondents' opinions on the relationship between pollution and community health status, and their sense of individual efficacy and respective commitments to green behaviors at work and at home. Respondents were asked to formally pledge to making environmentalism part of their personal lives and work lives. More than 700 people responded to the pledge and survey within four hours of receiving it. In all, more than 3,000 of Wheaton's 22,000-plus associates responded and committed to staying or going green; and 400 expressed interest in joining a green team at their facility or in their region. "We were encouraged by the response rate," Weber related.


  • 94 percent of respondents committed to going green in their personal life. A similar percentage agreed to go green at work.
  • 96 percent agreed or strongly agreed that they can make a difference in the local environment by changing their behaviors.
  • 97 percent agreed or strongly agreed that a polluted environment leads to an unhealthy community.
  • More than 87 percent of associates said they recycle.
  • More than 80 percent turn off lights when they leave a room.

A boost to efforts
The survey results have proven to be a treasure trove of information for Wheaton and its green teams, and the teams have used the results to bolster their efforts.

For example, Weber said, the results confirm "that many of our associates personally value environmental sustainability and are willing to bring that passion and those behaviors to work with them every day." And so, teams are making more of an effort to spell out the mission aspects of environmentalism.

Weber said Wheaton gleaned important information from write-in sections of the survey. For instance, while a large percentage of associates recycle, their comments indicated they had many questions about how to recycle at work. Some people wrote that they didn't know where to find recycling receptacles; others weren't sure what materials could be recycled at work. "This feedback challenged our assumptions that associates understood" green initiatives, said Weber.

So, the green teams are redoubling their efforts to educate and train associates, to ensure they understand the reasons behind green projects and how specifically those projects are to be carried out. Even prior to the survey, Wheaton facilities regularly posted green tips and information in newsletters, on the intranet, on posters and in other communications channels. The survey reinforced the value in doing this and inspired the teams to add more training and information.

Also, from employee survey responses, the teams got fresh ideas. One staff member suggested installing bike racks to encourage bike commuting; another said employees should not use personal heaters. The green team Vorland staffs and other teams are evaluating these ideas to determine which to push out to their facilities.

Taking the survey, more associates keyed into Wheaton's activity, added All Saints' Koch: "It was good as a whole for associates to see that Wheaton is doing this and that there is collaboration among our facilities."

Vorland noted that the survey process also generated names of potential recruits for the green teams.

Weber said Wheaton's green journey and the survey results confirmed: "There are always people in your organization who are passionate about the environment. You need to find them and engage them.

"Then people will follow them," she said.

Green Pledge
Green Pledge Report

Earth Day resources

CHA has developed new resources and compiled material from other health care sources to support ministry members marking Earth Day, April 22. The materials can be found here.

Wheaton employees find many ways to reduce their environmental footprint

Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare's survey last year asked respondents what they already are doing to be environmentally friendly, either at work or at home.

Some said they are:

  • Walking to work.
  • Patrolling the garbage to catch missed recyclables.
  • Using the clothesline rather than the dryer.
  • Keeping the blinds closed in the summer to keep the house cool.
  • Using energy-efficient appliances.
  • Riding a motorcycle rather than driving a car in temperate weather.
  • Consolidating errands while in the car.
  • Carpooling.
  • Working from home to avoid commuting pollution.
  • Reusing plastic bags.
  • Reusing rubber bands, paper clips and envelopes.
  • Canning food.
  • Composting food scraps.
  • Reading newspapers online rather than subscribing to the print edition.

Wheaton employee's green suggestions

The survey also asked employees to share their ideas for how Wheaton can be greener.

Some suggestions were for facilities to:

  • Install bike racks to encourage employees to peddle to work instead of driving.
  • Investigate using less toxic cleaning chemicals, in addition to what they already use.
  • Discontinue the use of a printer feature that automatically prints documents when someone opens them.
  • Debut a "green day" in which staff wears green as a reminder to be environmentally friendly.
  • Place more recycling receptacles around the facilities.
  • Investigate recycling more plastic patient items, such as bedpans.
  • Encourage employees to power down computers when they are not in use.
  • Investigate the use of reusable cups, utensils and plates in cafeterias. For instance, one employee suggested ceramic plates rather than disposable ones.


Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.