by Dean Witherspoon   Dean's profile on LinkedIn  

We’re struck by how often wellness and benefit professionals lament low participation in health improvement programs. The tone often hints there’s something wrong with employee attitudes because they don’t take advantage of what’s good for them. It’s the main reason cited for implementing carrots and sticks to “motivate” — If they can’t see this is important, we’re going to show them with cash or the threat of losing cash.


Somewhere along the line, many employers simply abandoned the idea that people can act in their own best interest or do what’s good for the company without bribing or browbeating. They’ve set their expectations so low with regard to employee motivation for personal well-being that they think they must impose extrinsic motivators to improve health.


Unfortunately — without fail — every organization learns within 3-5 years that they’re incurring a huge cost to pay healthy people to keep doing what they’re already doing and haven’t made a dent in the 60% of their unhealthy population.


What’s odd is these same organizations would never resort to such twisted logic to sell their product or service. “Our product is so mediocre, we would like to pay you to try it. And if that doesn’t work, we’re going to fine you for not using it.” Insulting your customer seldom works… nor does insulting your employees.

Best Practice or Lack of Innovation?

I’m convinced that at least some of the mediocrity stems from the “best practice” idea that’s gained traction in the last decade. The notion that for a wellness program to be effective, it needs to include this, and this, and this — as outlined by organizations like HERO (Health Enhancement Research Organization), National Business Group on Health, ACSM, and lots of vendors. All are useful guideposts, to be sure, and worthy of consideration. But the idea that all these elements are needed to have an impact on the health of a population can contribute to stagnation, while hiding behind the guise of comprehensiveness.


Another downside of the checklist approach to wellness program design is the impression that each element should have equal weight and/or that there’s a proper sequence of activities. For example, you wouldn’t start programming before doing a health assessment, right? Well, actually, you might — since you can probably figure out the top 3 needs of 90% of employees in almost any North American organization simply by reviewing the demographic profile (something HR should have at their fingertips). Or, you could spend 20% of your budget to learn that people need to move more, eat more vegetables, and improve their sleep habits.

Build a Better Wellness Program and Participants Will Beat a Path to Your Door

So how do you break out of the begging or bribing mindset? By creating a program so stunningly attractive, so inherently compelling that employees would be willing to pay for the privilege of participation, just as they are for outside services they value. Here’s how:

  • Discover what makes the greatest impact. Get close to your employees to find out what matters to them. That means more than using SurveyMonkey; it means getting out from behind your desk and your wellness dashboard and rubbing elbows. Spend a week job shadowing in various departments, getting a feel for the challenges employees face. It’s one thing to analyze aggregate data for clues, quite another to experience obstacles first hand. You can bet this is a step your R&D group is doing for product development. Are you omniscient or just smarter than they are?
  • Align the stars. Once you’ve identified where you can have the greatest impact, obtain backing/buy-in from your organization’s decision makers and influencers. Just about every best practice list includes management support as a top priority. Here’s a chance for the C-suite and division heads to step up and go beyond the platitudes of “wellness is good for everyone.” Their actions, participation, and messages can have a powerful effect. Spell it out for them — this is what we need you to do…
  • Bet the farm. Wellness practitioners have an innate desire to take care of everyone. As a result, we often spread ourselves too thin — attempting to create services with overly broad appeal or a series of niche interventions that cover our entire population. It’s a futile endeavor and almost assuredly produces tepid results. Again, the strategists in your organization aren’t deluding themselves into thinking they’ll capture 100% of any given market; what makes you think you can? Once you’ve determined the 1 or 2 things that will have the greatest impact, go all in. Be relentless in your pursuit of exceptional design, execution, and evaluation. And unless you have a very generous wellness budget, stop nibbling around the edges of problem number 5, and put all resources into your top 2.
  • Change your thinking from wellness is something you “do” to wellness is an atmosphere you create. If your key metric is how many people registered for this or that service, you’re destined to fail. Your goal is health, not registrants. And health begins at the kitchen table, on the sidewalks near home, at local restaurants. In other words, it starts in the minds of your employees and follows them throughout their work and home life. Yes, you need a way to measure impact, but it’s not about how many people filled out a form. It’s about the effect you’ve had on the quality of work and home life — regardless of participation stats.

So if you want a wellness program that employees (and your employer) can’t live without, narrow your focus to what matters and become the best you can at all aspects of it.


# Jenny Guthrie 2013-09-11 15:58
LOVE this! So frustrated with employer groups who look for immediate results from programs structured without meaning; top-down support, as a benchmark, should include a good understanding of employees, their typical workday, what's meaningful to them at work and in their lives, and what makes wellness work for THEM. Cultural shift cannot happen with today's typical wellness program structure. THANK YOU, HES and Dean, for your work and initiative towards change for the better-and the SOLUTION!
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