by Dean Witherspoon   Dean's profile on LinkedIn  

Dave cleans our offices on Sunday mornings, which happens to be the same time I stop in for a couple hours to prepare for the week. He’s a fit 40-something who looks like he could run a sub-40 minute 10K. His Monday-Friday job is at a local tool and die manufacturer — a 3-shift operation with mostly union workers. 

The HR folks at Dave’s workplace have been trying various wellness programs in recent years with poor results. “I suggested the company pay for half of fitness center memberships, but instead they decided to pick up the whole cost. After a year, they dropped the benefit because people would sign up, but that was the last time they went to the gym. They had no skin in the game. So those of us that would actually use the benefit get nothing.” 

Dave went on: “Our annual step challenge is next month, and the same thing that happened in past years will happen again. People will sign up to earn the $50 gift card, then go back to using the elevator at the end of the month.” And… “We do an assessment every other year, and half the guys lie about their smoking, drinking, exercise because they think the information will be used against them to increase health insurance premiums and copays.” 

Unfortunately, Dave’s workplace wellness experience isn’t unusual. Well-meaning, yet misguided managers implement services intended to inspire behavior change but miss the mark by a wide margin at best, and actually make change harder at worst.

All “Behaviors” Are Not Created Equal
At the root of misguidedness is a fundamental misunderstanding of why people change behaviors long term. They don’t do it for money. They don’t do it to earn a reward or to avoid a penalty. They don’t do it for the company (a boss, their teammates, the CEO). They don’t do it for a spouse, their kids, their doctor, or their spiritual adviser. They do it for themselves. 

Disappointingly, some of the most influential leaders in our field promulgate the idea that you can trick (my word, not theirs) people into long-term behavior change by hitting on the right combination of carrots, sticks, and environmental cues. But the inconvenient truth is that changing a long-held behavior reinforced by years of social and emotional conditioning as well as millennia of evolution is nothing like getting someone to change their recycling behavior, energy consumption behavior, web surfing behavior, or driving behavior. They’re apples and oranges; we almost need a word other than “behavior” to describe long-ingrained health habits. 

For more on this topic, download our white paper, Small Steps or Giant Leaps: What Works Best for Health Behavior Change?

Ironically, many attempts to improve health habits have the opposite effect over the long haul. Why? Because they:
  • Encourage people to think in the short term 
  • Put the focus on extrinsic motivation 
  • Don’t motivate employees to explore why they struggle with making the right food choices, being active, maintaining a healthy weight, etc. 
It’s an overly simplistic view of what is typically a complex social and emotional challenge that may be made more difficult by an unsupportive workplace. 

What to Do
Take a deep breath. And another. 

Now ask yourself, your management, and those you serve: What is the wellness program’s role in our organization? Are you a fixer of what’s wrong with employee health habits? A motivator? A facilitator? A resource? 

Is wellness something you do to employees, or is it an atmosphere you create? Is the program a separate department that offers tools or is it an element that permeates every function, with each manager sharing in the responsibility? Is it both? 

Is your role to improve the population’s health risk profile or to help make your company a place the most talented people in your industry choose to work rather than your competitors? Both? 

The answers to these and related questions can help you reframe your purpose and start on a path to turn around a failing program or take one with middling success to new levels. When you do, you’re almost certainly going to: 
  • Stop paying/punishing people for good/bad health behaviors. Your organization hired people for their ability to do a job, not their BMI or cholesterol levels. Pay them fairly for what they were hired to do and create an atmosphere where intrinsic motivation for health can flourish. 
  • Do less but do it better. Contrary to some “best practice” lists, it’s not about the amount of stuff you do, but rather what you do really, really well. Be the best at… (fill in the blank). 
  • Ask employees to share in some costs. People will pay for great products and services. And having some skin in the game causes us to examine our reasons for wanting to participate. It may result in fewer signups to start, but that’s okay. Really. 
  • Make it challenging, fun, and social. If it’s easy, bland, and a single-person activity (that is, almost every online assessment in the marketplace) it won’t inspire. 


# Julie Steebs 2016-08-10 13:19
The last health clinic I worked at gave staff a wellness benefit, the employee could take it or leave it. I loved it, religiously went to the gym, it became a habit. I believe it is true....having some "skin" in it, an investment, staff would take it more seriously. I would love to have a benefit that would cover half the cost of my gym membership. I don't go now because of the expense. Instead I walk, bike, kayak..etc., but I feel I still need the gym to fulfill parts of my wellness that other activities can't. Thank you.
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