Benefits for VCU employees go beyond discounts

Mind and body programs — including chair yoga, meditation, strength training and nutrition — will be offered starting in January through Human Resources and Rec Sports partnership.

Cindi Phares and Anthony Muscatello at Cary Street Gym.
Cindi Phares and Anthony Muscatello at Cary Street Gym. VCU Human Resources and Rec Sports are partnering this winter to offer free mind and body programs to VCU employees, including chair yoga, mindfulness meditation, strength training and nutrition. (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Wellness is Cindi Phares’ passion. She works every day to make sure the 11,000 employees at Virginia Commonwealth University are physically fit, financially healthy and achieving proper work-life balance.

Phares has worked at VCU for over 20 years, first as a graduate medical education coordinator and, since late 2018, as the program administrator for employee recognition and well-being at VCU Human Resources. In her current role, she develops programs that directly benefit VCU employees.

“I help you live your best life at work and at home,” Phares said.

Those efforts include starting a wellness blog that features information on lectures for VCU employees as well as news about wellness. Phares also organizes discounts offered to VCU employees and maintains a website listing those offers.

Her newest effort is a partnership between Human Resources and Recreation Sports. Starting in January, physical activity classes for VCU employees will be offered at the Cary Street Gym on the Monroe Park Campus and the MCV Campus Recreation Center at the Jonah L. Larrick Student Center. 

“During a conversation at a meeting, the idea was brought up to collaborate,” Phares said. “They liked the idea and asked how they could do more.”

Through the partnership, Rec Sports will offer various mind and body programs such as chair yoga, mindfulness meditation, strength training and nutrition. Anthony Muscatello, Recreational Sports assistant director for external relations, is excited to see the two departments working together and believes it will benefit VCU employees.

“Starting with new employee orientation, VCU staff and faculty can take advantage of resources and support offered through our two departments, which aim to create a culture of wellness and work-life balance for our entire community,” Muscatello said.

The classes will be offered year-round. Phares said she is happy that she was able to negotiate an agreement and wants to educate employees about the new opportunity.

Medical residents’ mental well-being

It was a tragedy that first led Phares to embrace wellness as part of her job. As a graduate medical education coordinator, she helped over 100 medical residents become doctors. One day, a doctor who she helped through residency was involved in a domestic incident. Phares said the woman was kind and had a great heart. She was the last person that Phares thought would be involved in such an event.

“I had a lot of residents in my office crying,” Phares said. “I counseled them, and I cried with them. This was so unexpected. It was tragic.” 

The heartbreaking event led her to realize that resident training can be difficult for many people. She wanted to find a way to focus on the mental well-being of her residents and give them the skills they needed to handle the rigorous program. 

She spoke with the department chair and he agreed. He thought that finding a way to integrate wellness activities into the life of medical residents was positive. He wanted to see doctors have a well-rounded perspective on life. 

Phares implemented some wellness programs on the medical campus, but she wanted more. Then the position in Human Resources opened up. She applied and was hired. It was a dream job. She immediately started the wellness blog and began managing the discount website. She also started organizing lectures, ranging from talks on budgeting to physical fitness activities. 

“My goal has been to get the word out to people,” Phares said.

Enlisting wellness ambassadors

Phares’ next big effort is increasing the number of wellness ambassadors across the university. Each department can have a wellness ambassador who works with Phares. The goal is to improve communications with employees and increase their awareness of wellness opportunities at the university. 

“I will take anybody who wants to get the word out,” she said of the type of person she wants as a wellness ambassador.

In general, she wants to educate VCU employees about the benefits they get just by being an employee. Employees can live better lives if they take advantage of these benefits. Phares said she is always looking for ways to bring exciting and relevant information to VCU employees. 

“I love this job,” she said.

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