5 Reasons Your Wellness Program Is Failing (And How to Fix It)

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Jul 29, 2020

Employee wellness programs have become all the rage over the past few years with companies leveraging them as competitive differentiators for hiring and recruiting. Of course, organizations are also motivated by the fact that healthier employees perform better and there’s a bona fide opportunity to lower the cost of healthcare for employees.

The problem many organizations run into, however, is that merely offering programs is not enough. While the program itself may be top-notch, getting people to participate and engage with the offerings is a much bigger obstacle. Why?

First, you’re asking people to change deep-rooted behaviors, some of which have been lifelong habits, and that’s extremely hard. 

Second, while everyone would agree that being healthier is important, results don’t always happen right away, and in our instant-gratification society, striving toward long-term goals can be tough for some people. 

There’s also the issue of measurement: Choosing the right metrics to track progress can be tricky because you want to avoid the risk of shaming or discouraging anyone.

But perhaps the biggest challenge is the fact that there are multiple facets to wellness. Physical, emotional, mental, social, and financial health all play into an individual’s overall wellbeing. It’s virtually impossible to separate them or address only specific factors, especially in the wake of a global pandemic. As Mike Rude, CHRO at Option Care Health, explains:

“Mental health is going to be critical in the wake of the pandemic, especially when you add in all the other issues employees are facing right now: financial stress, social upheaval, isolation, working from home while caring for family members. It’s a lot to deal with, and it all takes a toll on our physical health. Companies have to play a role in supporting the whole person, because all of these factors are inextricably tied together.” 

Even if your wellness programs are addressing the whole person, adoption and engagement can still be a struggle, especially if you’re not communicating effectively. Like any change initiative, driving wellness-related behavioral change requires clear and consistent communication. 

Here are 5 reasons your program might be struggling and how to fix them with sound communication strategy.

1. Not Communicating the “Why” 

Employees want to know the reason, the strategy, and the intended benefit behind the change you’re asking for. While you might have a fiscal motive for encouraging participation in your program, that’s not likely to resonate with your audience. Instead, frame the “why” in terms of how it will benefit the employee. 

For example, explain how participating in yoga or meditation at lunchtime can help people feel less frazzled during their family time. When you explain the reason for the change in a manner that speaks to your intended audience, you’re much more likely to see results.

2. A One-and-Done Announcement 

You likely made a big splash when you launched the program, and you probably made it a part of the onboarding process. But is that where the communication ends? If so, this could be a big reason you’re not seeing enough engagement. 

Employees need more from communication than they often get — namely, they expect a series of messages, not a mere one-time announcement. And they need those messages to be timely and relevant, which no single, stand-alone message can do. 

Encourage participation by sending regular reminders of opportunities, like weekly after-work walking groups or whole-foods cooking classes. Communicate participant milestones and testimonials with the entire organization so everyone can see proven results. Take a lesson from consumer marketers who know that reinforcement is the key to “stickiness.” 

By maintaining ongoing communication, it keeps the program top-of-mind and encourages people to take part.

3. People Are Overwhelmed

Too much of a good thing can be, well, too much. I’ve seen companies with dozens or hundreds of various programs and perks, and it’s hard for employees to navigate them all and know what’s most important. 

Instead, whittle it down. Make simple offerings that are easy for employees to understand. Making the information relevant to your audience with customized communication is the only way to overcome the noise of all the communication clutter that comes their way.

4. No Clearly Defined the Goals

While the objective of your wellness program might be to reduce the number of employees with chronic health conditions to lower the cost of insurance, you must first get people engaged. Many companies start by setting participation goals — they want X% of employees to participate in the programs — but from a communication standpoint, even that’s putting the cart before the horse. 

The number of people you engage with the program is what really matters. Are you reaching your target audience? Is the message resonating with them? Even if they haven’t gone to the gym or participated in a guided meditation, do they understand what’s available and why it’s beneficial? Identifying the right metrics and using a data analytics approach can help you to better understand your employees and what works best to reach them. 

Using a strategy that mixes communication data with other employee-engagement data can give you clearer insights into preferences. That’s a win you can build on to drive adoption. 

If you don’t define and measure communication-based goals, you’ll never know that the reason for poor participation is that your messages aren’t getting through.

5. A One-Size-Fits-All Approach 

Just like everyone isn’t going to run a 5K, email isn’t the best way to reach everyone with your wellness-program messages. Not only is every employee in a different place when it comes to their physical, mental, and financial wellbeing, they also absorb messages differently. That means your batch-and-blast emails aren’t going to get everyone’s attention.

Instead, meet people where they are both in terms of their wellness needs and their communication preferences. Tailoring messages for each individual (or targeted groups) based on topic, approach, tone, style, communication channel (video, collaboration channels, text messages, group chat, etc.), and who delivers messages will drive much greater engagement and participation.

If the last few months have taught us anything, it’s that being able to drive change and adapt quickly are crucial for business success — and sometimes even survival. Believe it or not, your ability to implement and drive adoption of a strong employee wellness program is a key indicator of business agility and your status as a change-ready organization.

Anyone who’s ever embarked on a fitness, nutritional, self-improvement, or financial-stability program can tell you that driving and sustaining this kind of change is hard. However, once you learn how to target and engage employees with individualized experiences, as well as measure and iterate through a wellness program, you’ll be well-suited to implement this same strategy to meet any future change challenges.