by Dean Witherspoon   Dean's profile on LinkedIn  

One of my frequent debates with longtime industry colleagues is the notion of best practice. The malleable term gets bandied about when someone wants to believe what they’re doing has somehow been ordained as the way to practice wellness. It’s all I can do to contain myself when among the list of program components is financial incentives.

The sheer ignorance of that position makes me immediately call into question everything else on the list, even though I know better. Indeed, in the right culture — and with skilled execution — biometric screening, health coaching, and visible support by senior leadership can be a net positive. But when an industry association or vendor trots out the best practices as if they’re criteria for success, and the list includes the notion that paying people to change is desirable or necessary, watch out. It’s not only patently false, but sets up the wellness program for long-term failure.

When our white paper, How Financial Incentives/Disincentives Undermine Wellness, came out in 2012 it was met with high praise on one side and vehement criticism on the other — with very few inbetweeners. To every critic I posed the same challenge: Show me a single example of a financial incentive/disincentive model that’s been in place for 3+ years and has not had to significantly boost payouts and/or ratchet up penalties to maintain even a level participation rate. We would be glad to publish it so others can learn from the success. To date, no one has followed through.

Missing the Point

While the notion of best practice is well intentioned, it can completely obscure the obvious: Organizations that apply many of the best practices are successful not because they’ve completed each task, but because they have the foundation in place for success.

They have management that cares about its people — a philosophy that employees and their families aren’t liabilities on the balance sheet, but are in fact true assets whose contributions add up to more than a positive ROI. And the employees perceive their contributions as meaningful and part of something bigger than themselves. They see how what they do matters, and immediate supervisors reinforce that understanding with appropriate mentoring and recognition.

The wellness program is simply an extension of that philosophy — it’s something we do for employees, not to employees. It’s a way to support, not manipulate, workers and their families. It offers the tools and resources to improve their quality of life within the context of an organization that has their long-term best interests in mind.

If that doesn’t sound like the place you work, you’ve a long row to hoe, no matter how many best practices you can point to. If you’re sincerely interested in a culture of health and a fulfilling wellness career, put more effort into building the foundation for success by influencing the organization’s philosophy toward employees… and away from completing the checklist.

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