How to make corporate wellness work

  • Article by: ROSIE WARD
  • Updated: October 31, 2010 - 3:39 PM

Try moving those company programs beyond fruits, veggies and pedometers toward overall well-being.

Corporate wellness programs are often introduced with the best of intentions: to improve employee health, foster teamwork and add some fun to the workplace. But the dirty little secret is that these programs often prove to be unsustainable, and therefore unsuccessful.

To avoid this problem, companies should shift their focus away from short-term behavioral changes and toward addressing overall well-being.

According to recent research from the Gallup Organization, well-being is made up of five essential elements:

•Career well-being: enjoying what one does every day.

•Social well-being: having strong relationships and love in one's life.

•Financial well-being: effectively managing one's economic life.

•Physical well-being: having good health and energy to accomplish things each day.

•Community well-being: having a sense of engagement with the area in which one lives.

How all these elements interact determines overall well-being and quality of life. Yet of the five elements, Gallup found career well-being to be the most important.

Reductions in career well-being and engagement have been linked to increased workplace injuries, declines in mental health and higher cholesterol. If employees do not trust management, lack strong relationships with their coworkers, have too much on their plate or have had wages and benefits cut, then implementing a wellness program that focuses on specific health behaviors will likely be met with skepticism or even resentment.

Most companies focus on behavior modification (e.g., smoking cessation, physical activity, nutrition) and use incentives to get employees to comply. This may result in high participation but can ultimately hurt engagement.

The Gallup Organization defines engagement as people who work with passion and feel a profound connection to their company. As a result, these employees drive innovation and move the organization toward its goals and vision. Gallup researchers report that lack of engagement costs American businesses more than $370 billion per year in lost productivity and has been associated with increased injury rates, declining mental health and decreased well-being.

Even programs that achieve 80 to 90 percent participation rates may not improve overall engagement. Many employees simply "go through the motions" in order to get the incentive. Many feel they are forced to participate because, in fact, they are.

Research shows engagement occurs when employees know what is expected of them, feel valued, are able to leverage their strengths and have quality relationships at work. Therefore, companies need to focus more on building engagement and well-being than "wellness."

What motivates people?

Research consistently shows long-term change, called intrinsic motivation, must come from within a person. Change efforts based on extrinsic motivation (carrots and sticks) typically fail in the long run.

Neuroscience research shows that the brain is literally hard-wired to resist change. However, when people are supported and able to work out their own solutions, the brain releases a rush of neurotransmitters such as adrenaline, and they are more willing to adapt and change.

Companies are most successful when they support employees in thinking for themselves and providing a culture and environment that supports all areas of well-being.

Successful wellness programs are a natural extension of a company culture where employees truly feel valued and career well-being is high. Without a culture of mutual trust and respect, wellness programs and incentives are perceived as another way to manipulate employees.

In fact, working to increase engagement does far more for well-being in the long term than implementing a weight management or smoking cessation program.

Rather than implementing a "wellness program," implement a new "well-being benefit" of employment that employees help to create. The benefit should be derived from an employee survey of the company's culture and address all areas of well-being. Teams or task forces should be created to ensure this is an employee-driven benefit, not a HR or leadership initiative to cut health care costs.

The team should create a three- to five-year strategic plan to improve each area of well-being. Once the long-term vision for employee well-being is established, create a detailed operating plan for the next 12 months that will serve as a blueprint for where to start. For many companies, their well-being plan starts with the fundamentals of rebuilding trust, improving communication and other elements that improve career well-being.

When companies focus on all five elements of well-being and create a culture that honors the unique needs of their employees, they will have less of a need to use incentives. The improved culture will allow them to harness the intrinsic healthful desires of their employees to improve well-being.

  • Rosie Ward is the health management services manager for RJF Agencies Inc. She has more than 16 years of experience designing and implementing health management programs for organizations of all types and sizes. Her e-mail is wardr@rjfagencies.com.

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