When Wellness Sucks, We All Lose

Employee wellness can be a controversial subject -- especially whether it really generates an ROI. (Photo illustration by istockphoto.com).

As a crazy cynic (yet grudgingly a realist at times), there is a certain disdain I have for wellness programs.

Could it be that “Big Brother” vibe I get from the wellness leader every time I take my Burgerville lunch to my desk to work over my prescribed hour break? Or perhaps griping about the fact that companies shouldn’t even be in the business of health care in the first place? Maybe it’s the lame programs that don’t provide meaningful change? Or just maybe, it’s the sheer audacity that something like this is necessary but just not well executed?

So when Tanya Barham, CEO of Portland based Recess Wellness, came to our meeting, ordered a coffee and danish and inhaled it before we could even get the pleasantries out of the way, I knew this wasn’t going to be the same old wellness talk I was used to.

When Wellness Sucks

I was first exposed to Recess Wellness from a brilliant video posted on Kris Dunn’s HR Capitalist blog. Check out the video below to get a flavor of Recess Wellness along with their When Wellness Sucks website (RSS and e-mail viewers may have to click through):

Yes, it’s funny. Yes, it reminds me of every wellness program ever (ineffective or kitschy programs designed for small, short-term gains).

Still, however funny the video was, many folks in the wellness industry look to discredit other wellness programs. It’s the easiest way to explain why a customer should go with them over a competitor. And there are always case studies, statistics, and referrals to back up their programs.

Light bulb moment

Before Recess Wellness, Barham was in traditional project management roles for several organizations. While the work meshed well with her analytical passions, the workload was through the roof. “I took on projects just to prove I could do it,” Barham said. “I rarely got sick before, but all of the sudden, it was happening all the time.”

In the midst of the work, she took a yoga class and she was surprised at how refreshed she was from it.

“It sounds clichè to say that yoga changed my life, but it did,” she confessed.

Soon after, she started her own business (Recess Fitness) and taught yoga, fitness, and nutrition to companies. When she looked at expansion, wellness made the most sense. She described it to me as marrying this holistic person she discovered with her analytical side. While yoga and on-site fitness classes engaged people who were interested in improving, it gave no access to people who weren’t.

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A difference in approach

Barham acknowledges the cynics and the haters of wellness programs, and will alternate between quietly admitting that it’s difficult meeting the lofty (and sometimes misguided) wellness goals of some executives and an almost religious fervor about the power of health to impact bottom line business results.

“We want to align our wellness program with hard business results,” she said. “We believe it’s a vehicle for that change.”

That’s difficult though. Connecting wellness to business results is an inexact science. As she is running me through how they meticulously measure different variables, I wonder how many executives buy this on the front end of a wellness program? My guess is that Barham’s enthusiasm and track record helps make a sale as much as facts and figures.

Beating skepticism

One of the biggest issues they deal with is a misconception of what a great wellness program does. And it is this misconception (along with perhaps a bad implementation or two) that makes it difficult to put together a wellness program that sticks.

Wellness programs require culture and behavior shifts. That takes time, Barham says. She asks her clients for two to three years. This can be a shock to companies that have tried a one year, six months, or even 90-day trials of a wellness program. Even in my skepticism, I know that two to three years may be too short for some companies.

What we can both agree on is that terrible wellness programs fuels an excuse filled, entitlement health culture. Even if a wellness program isn’t the answer, getting sick all of the time and eating carb and fat filled lunches aren’t doing any favors for your productivity at work. That’s a concern, even if your employer isn’t footing the bill.

While skepticism and cynicism might not change anytime soon, Barham hopes that the video helps relate and reach out to the doubters out there. She puts it bluntly: “We understand there are doubters out there and hopefully we can show that we share some of the same frustrations.”

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