Employee Wellness is Simply a Matter of Employee Engagement

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HR managers and leaders across the country are gathering together in meetings large and small, sharing ideas and concerns, and trying to understand the intricacies and impacts of health care reform on their organizations.

There are the immediate and highly publicized changes that went into effect on January 1, 2013, but there’s a slew of additional ones coming down the pike over the next several months (and years) including everything from health insurance exchanges to mandated coverage to Medicaid expansion to new taxes on high-end plans, and more.

Then there are the tangible financial costs — as requirements relative to benefits eligibility change and more employees sign onto employer plans; the Baby Boomer generation entering into retirement in droves; to the previously mentioned excise tax levied on “Cadillac Plans” – that leaves many organizations simply trying to understand what they need to do, when they need to do it, and figuring out in some cases how to pay for it.

Fundamental truths about our workforce

Couple health care reform with the actual state of health (and work) in America and a couple of fundamental truths about our workforce become clear:

  • We’re on the cliff of a talent deficit. There simply aren’t enough workers to replace those looking to leave over the next 15-plus years. Further, how we do business is changing, as technology evolves location and physical environment are becoming a less critical issue for the work that needs to be done (Yahoo’s recent changes to their work-from-home program aside), and we have to determine how to keep up with our competitors in the race for top talent in an ever more global environment.
  • As a population we’re facing what feels like a constantly growing list of health and wellness challenges ranging from obesity to heart disease to diabetes to issues of hunger and more. As a nation of workers, we’re a bit sickly according to the U.S. Department of Labor, whose 2012 reporting shows an overall absenteeism rate of 3.1 percent for all workers. For the sake of perspective, the rate has not dropped below 3.0 percent in the last 10 years. As employers, we often spend more time with the employees in our organizations than the employees do with their own families – to that end we have to determine what our obligations are.

Put it all together and the big question quickly becomes — what do we do?

Healthier employees are more engaged employees

Take the inherent challenges of simply managing an evolving workforce, then pair that with a host of new tests for organizations ranging from small businesses to large mega-corporations as a result of health care reform – simply looking at the data, let alone doing anything with it, can be overwhelming and downright scary, but we have to keep in mind that with new challenges comes new opportunity.

Even before the passage of the Affordable Care Act, many organizations were looking at their employees and struggling to find ways to create a better workforce.

It seemed like common sense that healthier employees or more engaged employees equaled happier employees. The larger idea being that happy, healthy, engaged employees simply outperformed those that aren’t.

Companies implemented everything from smoking cessation programs to in-house Weight Watchers programs to satisfaction surveys to charitable campaigns and more – but in many organizations there is still a gap between those that are engaged and those that are exemplars of wellness.

Building a culture of wellness

Many organizations have simply failed to recognize that these two groups aren’t separate entities, but rather, two sides of the same coin.

An engaged workforce begets a well workforce and vice versa. Management has to realize that wellness is a function of employee engagement, and when that happens we really will be able to conclude that a happy, healthy, engaged workforce outperforms one that isn’t.

So how do we create a culture of wellness by way of enhanced employee engagement – how do we create a workforce engaged in wellness, not just their own but their co-workers and the organization’s?

The answer to all that may be easier to get at and understand than the myriad of questions preceding it. Five simple principles can help you move your organization ahead in terms of both engagement and wellness:

1. Communicate

Clear, consistent, and across your platforms. Think HR and organizational newsletters, email blasts, intranet/departmental websites, flyers in the break room, podcasts, training sessions, social media (a move that has the potential to not only engage your current workforce but attract new talent to it).

2. Gamify

Or at least make wellness (and when possible work itself) fun. Many employees view wellness programs as simply a method to reduce insurance costs for the organization, but it’s more than that.

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Show employees you care about them and turn wellness programming into something enjoyable. Consider options like campus/office geocaching, “pick your own course” golf tournaments, or walking (or hiking or biking or surfing) groups as supplements to the typical service awards and employee recognition activities – the point being make wellness something employees want to do and find easy to participate in – the additional upside to these kinds of activities being that employees may form new professional relationships, synergies, and lines of communication that don’t currently exist

3. Incentivize

Building on the notion of gamification, the implementation of rewards for employee wellness can go a long way.

Take for example the recent study published in Annals of Internal Medicine that shows a direct link between cash rewards and weight loss program success. Even if your organization can’t/won’t provide cash rewards there are other ways to incentivize from “denim days” to paid community volunteer time to a reduction in an employee’s insurance deductible to simple acts of public recognition.

Remember, prizes create motivation.

4. Diversify

Create a culture that not only embraces wellness, but encourages it.

Take a look at your organization’s current professional development and engagement activities and look for ways to link it to your employees’ personal development and goals. Build a community of workers that care about their co-workers and recognize how every single person plays an integral role in the success of the team and you’re likely to see performance rocket (even as the demands may become greater).

5. Measure

Communication, gamification, incentives, and diversification are all great; but they don’t mean anything if we can’t report back on our successes.

Go beyond the typical employee satisfaction survey, figure out what the big data factors are for your organization – what’s the organization’s highest wellness risk factors? How have they improved year over year?

Treat your employees like customers and measure your customer satisfaction – determine what’s working and what isn’t, focus on improving programs and offerings and hearing what your workers have to say and wellness and engagement are sure to follow.

Erik Smetana is an HR strategist and talent leader with extensive experience working in and fostering teams and innovation for an eclectic mix of organizations including Fortune 500 companies, international not-for-profits, and institutions of higher education and research. His thoughts and opinions related to all things "employee experience" (and occasionally other topics) can be found online at www.thehrfieldguide.com.

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