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Mar 27, 2014

Today’s model for workplace wellness is to offer a program of dazzling options, but studies show such programs are not producing the outcomes they promised and that employees and companies deserve.

Here are four major changes for employers who want to improve their employees’ health and wellness and realize a return on their investment in wellness programs.

1. Get real about outcomes

A recently published study by The RAND Corporation revealed that wellness programs are not getting the intended results. One reason programs were failing was that fewer than 37 percent of U.S. employers even measure the effectiveness of their wellness programs.

Measurement is a critical part of adjusting and tailoring a program to create meaningful results. If you aren’t measuring, how do you know what works? Or as Dr. W. Edwards Deming, the total quality management (TQM) expert said: “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.”

Another reason programs failed was that employers were not looking at outcome data with a critical eye.

For example, recently Highmark (a large Blue Cross and Blue Shield plan) showcased the results of the wellness program it offered its 19,600 employees. The results were given a shiny gloss when they should have set off loud alarms.

Fewer than half of its employees participated and fewer than half of that pool reported feeling more productive at work as a result of participating.

Another indicator was weight loss: The average loss was 5.6 pounds.

That’s a good start, but not near the modest 5-7 percent weight loss (an average of just 11 pounds), needed to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic diseases.

Only 163 employees lowered their Body Measurement Index (BMI) status from obese to overweight or from overweight to healthy weight. That’s less than one percent (.86 percent.)

If you accounted only for the two-thirds of Hallmark employees who are likely overweight or obese, the success rates rises to only 1.3 percent.

The bottom line: Highmark spent a lot on a well-intended program for weight loss. But they didn’t get enough participation or weight loss to significantly impact health and wellness. Highmark deserved a better result – and all of us need to look at our numbers and do an honest accounting to ensure program success.

2. Start with where people are “at”

Many wellness programs start with what seems like a logical place to begin: a health risk assessment (HRA). Unfortunately, many employees don’t participate because of fears about:

  • How the information may be used by their employersWill my insurance rates go up?
  • What the results may revealWill there be bad news?
  • What changes they should make but aren’t ready to makeBetter that I don’t know than feel guilty for not changing.

Pushing HRAs on people who aren’t asking for them is a recipe for failure – and often forms a barrier to attracting employees into committing to a program. Wellness programs should start with where people are “at” and what they want; and offer multiple pathways to entry.

By helping employees achieve goals that are important to them, and what they are ready for, opens up a pathway for ongoing wellness. By creating a welcoming entry-space, wellness programs will have more success engaging employees in tackling the difficult health and wellness challenges that drive up costs and reduce productivity.

And, when people feel understood, respected, and supported, they begin to invest emotionally and gain confidence in their ability to make changes. This emotional investment and confidence are what drive long-term health success.

3. Make health and wellness the social norm

Changing the corporate culture to make health and wellness the social norm is a key factor in achieving an organization’s wellness goals. That means:

  • Establishing policies that help health and wellness flourish.
  • Making healthy food available in the cafeteria, in vending machines, and at events.
  • Encouraging physical activity throughout the day instead of just subsidizing gym memberships or installing an onsite gym.
  • Viewing vacations as something that everyone is encouraged to take instead of only rewarding people for working long hours.
  • Encouraging and celebrating all the little things (and the big ones) that people do to stay at the top of their game at work and at home.

Successful wellness programs become part of the corporate culture and the social norm, not something that each employee does on their own in isolation.

4. Promote organizational wellness

Current wellness programs too often narrowly define wellness as the absence of disease and offer quick fixes to lower blood pressure, decrease weight or diabetes.

But, wellness isn’t a tactic.

Organizational wellness, like individual wellness, addresses all the factors that affect the organization’s capacity to thrive – how can each person be the best they can be physically, mentally, socially and spiritually? Individual employees are part of an organizational ecosystem – and that ecosystem should be healthy as well.

Creating a truly high-performance organization depends on engaging everyone at all levels of the organization and developing wellness leadership from the grassroots to the C-suite, from the cubicle all the way to the boardroom.