In the middle of Election Day 2018, Hennepin County Auditor Mark Chapin stepped away from his office, where he and his staff were overseeing the largest midterm turnout Minnesota had ever seen, and took a deep breath.

Exhaling, he followed the slow, flowing motions of a tai chi instructor who was leading a class in a Hennepin County Government Center meeting room for a small group of county employees on their lunch break.

In other rooms, in other office buildings, county employees were meditating, or working out, or getting acupuncture, or meeting with wellness coaches, or snuggling with therapy animals — all part of a massive county effort to create a healthier, happier workforce.

Tai chi is an ancient martial art you can practice in your office clothes without breaking a sweat. Chapin, who has studied it for almost a decade, credits tai chi with giving him the balance and strength to remain the oldest member of his hockey rec league’s roster. Younger players who collide with him during games, he said, crash to the ice while he stays upright.

Outside the room, Americans were crowding into polling stations, tilting the balance of power in Washington and St. Paul. Inside, for a few minutes on a Tuesday afternoon, there was only slow, gentle stretches and the voice of instructor Julie Cisler, coaxing students to release the stress from their shoulders, their arms, their aching backs and let it flow down, down through the soles of their feet, until it was gone.

Lesson over, Chapin headed back to his office, where election workers would stay at their posts until the final two precincts reported their results at 2:43 a.m. the next day.

Hennepin County’s $1.4 million HealthWorks program offers more than 11,000 county employees, spouses and retirees access to a suite of wellness, stress reduction, weight management and exercise programs the county hopes will save taxpayers money in the long run by easing workplace stress, illness and burnout.

All day, every day, teams of county social workers answer calls ringing into the child protective services hotline. This week, in between anguished reports of hurt, neglected children, the staff is scheduled to get a visit from a pile of emotional support bunnies and puppies. For people doing hard, thankless, critically important jobs, a quick break — even the time it takes to cuddle a puppy — can make all the difference.

When county social worker Danielle Monsrud needs a break, she can slip into the dim, soundproofed space her office set aside as a meditation room. “I work with families in crisis and sometimes I can take on a lot of their stress,” Monsrud said. She’ll sit there in silence, just breathing for a moment, until she’s ready to get back to work for those children and their families.

She walks out of the meditation room “refreshed, ready to go.”

Jill Hamilton, who manages the HealthWorks program, said Hennepin County started its employee wellness programs in 1982. The program has expanded to offer massage, yoga classes, healthy cooking classes, stress reduction seminars and lessons about how to avoid compassion fatigue. “We try to have something for everyone. You can be an ultra-athlete, or you could also be someone who’s thinking about starting something,” she said.

The county has estimated that its wellness investment could save taxpayers $2.8 million by preventing illness and workplace burnout. “It’s better to prevent these situations than run in after there’s a crisis,” Hamilton said.

Employees pay for the massages and tai chi classes, but the county lets them cash in unused sick time or vacation days to cover the cost of up to $2,000 worth of wellness programs each year — including gym memberships, exercise equipment and weight loss programs.

Kareem Murphy went to work for Hennepin County four years and 75 pounds ago. The job came with free sessions with a wellness coach, who advised Hennepin’s new legislative lobbyist to try making one healthy choice a week. So once a week, he swapped out his morning cheese danish or bagel for a piece of fruit. One good choice led to another. Then another.

“Exercise is my stress reliever,” said Murphy, who started running, plotting courses through the same parks he lobbied the Legislature to fund. His husband joined in and lost 100 pounds. Murphy hopes to run his first marathon.

So much of what happens at the Legislature is beyond his control, but “rather than getting in my car and driving to the Capitol, worried and overthinking everything … I’m still experiencing a runner’s high, effectively, on my way to my job.”


Twitter: @stribrooks