Millions of newly inspired fitness seekers will stream into gyms in January, many subsidized by their generous employers. However, just as predictably participation will wane over the year. A March, 2015 article in Entrepreneur Magazine revealed that even when companies support and subsidize wellness programs, something is still missing — and that something is employee participation.
Last year a November, 2015 article reported that half of eligible employees aren’t participating in a single wellness offering, and less that a quarter are choosing to engage with diet and exercise programs. Harvard Business Review corroborated these findings, “Collectively, employers spend upward of $8 billion a year on wellness programs — yet the programs under perform by most measures, and barely 25% of employers even try to understand how well their programs do.”
WELLNESS FROM THE TOP DOWN
Too often the executive branch or human resources department promotes a wellness program hoping for trickle down the to worker bees. Many embrace an authoritarian approach to wellness, with experts brought in to tell people how to exercise, how to eat, how to live as if everyone is the same and everyone will benefit from the same advice.
To make matters worse, it seems that many bosses fail to consider both physical and mental health equally. A November 14 post this year reported that an October survey of 3,100 employees conducted by CareerBuilder found that many employees take sick days because they’re stressed out and sleep-deprived, not because they have a “physical” illness. The body doesn’t compartmentalize physical and mental health.
STRUCTURING A WELLNESS MOVEMENT
- Make choosing health an easier choice. Why not put a platter of fresh fruit, cut up veggies or a bowl of pistachios on the table at a meeting instead of a tray of cookies? If someone wants a cookie, they can bring their own. Or was the goal to put everyone into a sugar stupor?
- Stop using incentives or punishment; the best motivation comes from within. Cash rewards and/or higher insurance premiums encourage people to go through the motions only to get the reward or avoid the penalty, not necessarily to reap the more meaningful benefits of better energy, greater concentration, or improved metabolic health.
- Step away from fear or disease based programs. Measuring BMI, completing health assessments, and lectures to reduce risk of disease intimidate and scare people. The outcome-based model works well for the bean counters but is lousy for people. Instead of a preoccupation with outcomes, focus on creating an environment that supports employees and enhances their well being all day, every day.
- Integrate health into every aspect of employee engagement, not just wellness activities. A lecture about nutrition is not nearly as meaningful as reviewing what is sold in the vending machines, what is served in the company cafeteria, and what gets brought into the break room. Is it time to stop bribing workers with sweets and treats at work?
- Check in with employees instead of starting another program, sponsoring another health fair, or initiating one more weight loss competition. What are they looking for?
IS THERE AN OPPORTUNITY TO INTEGRATE A WELLNESS MOVEMENT?
Most workers enjoy meaningful work, however I hear too many employees talk about 10-12 hours days, working after the kids go to bed, or spending the weekend catching up. Too often those at the top set the bar. While many talk work-life balance, the effort often seems futile. Learning how to integrate work with their life may be a more effective approach.
For example, workers need more flexibility and opportunity to move through the day. This should be a no-brainer, but most employers look at me as if I’m crazy to suggest such a thing, until I show them what happens to the brain after 20 minutes of activity. The brain fires up, able to problem solve more creatively and more effectively.
Why don’t we expect people who sit at work to move at least 10-20 minutes every couple of hours specifically to enhance their productivity? Why not offer those on their feet or performing more physical labor all day a different kind of break? They may benefit from stretching, breathing, or other tools to bring their body and mind back in alignment.
ONE MORE REASON WELLNESS PROGRAMS MAY FAIL TO DELIVER
Workplace wellness programs are due for an overhaul for many reasons, but especially because a growing number of these programs aren’t really about wellness at all. They are all about marketing.
I’ve been approached by too many “wellness companies” promising me a chance to market my business to thousands of potential customers. Some companies charge an annual fee to participate in the health fairs, sometimes with the promise to speak at a later date. Other companies simply ask me to speak for free.
MARKETING MASKED AS WELLNESS
Companies pay handsomely for “wellness programs”, to the tune of 8 billion dollars a year. A wellness companymay organize the health fares, book the guest speakers, or execute the health assessments. The host company provides the space and employees. So why aren’t work site programs working as well as they could?
Most of the companies tell me, the health professional, that the way to make the program work for me is to basically use the time to market and sell my services. They warn me to not give too much to the audience or I won’t get any new clients. These companies sell marketing masked as wellness, and I bet many of the employees who don’t participate in wellness programs know it.
The New Year offers an opportunity to embrace change. Ask me about cultivating a wellness movement in your business or organization.