Why I Hate Worksite Wellness “Best Practices”

I was in a meeting with a health and wellness vendor this week when they started rattling off some worksite wellness best practices. Naturally my ears perked up and I was ready to hear what they had to say.  Surely, they had some insight or at the very minimum I would nod my head in agreement.

Not so much.  While two of their best practices – having a wellness committee and a full time person dedicated to wellness – I completely agreed with, the other two were maddening.

The other two “best practices” were to incent people to participate in wellness activities and to have biometric screenings and/or an onsite clinic.  Why is this terrible advice? Not only are you spending money on screenings and clinics but you’re also paying for an incentive to participate.

I definitely understand the need to incent employees for some things, like taking a survey, trying something new or to generate buzz or excitement.  When employers and even wellness professionals plan programs, it’s always combined with the question “what are we going to give them to participate”.

Research shows that incentives work for a simple task, such as taking a survey or getting a fingerstick, but there’s no evidence they work long term for behavior change.  If you are finding that you always have to incent employees to participate, it’s time to revamp your wellness program.

The other best practice was to invest in biometric screenings and/or a clinic.  Many employers don’t have the budget for these items and can build a successful wellness program without them.  In fact, we’ve found that employers need to be a certain size (around 750 employees in one location) to even benefit from an onsite clinic.

Any best practice should be approached with a healthy dose of skepticism. You should always dig further into best practices for what result was achieved, what population does it apply to and effort to implement.

There are worksite wellness practices I’ve seen work but I’ll avoid calling them best practices.  I’ll walk through each one and tell you why I’ve seen it work.

Senior Leadership Support: This is a pretty consistent success factor in wellness programs. My team and I work with many employers and when the CEO/Top Exec is involved, there is always more energy and enthusiasm around worksite wellness.

It’s even better when they show up to wellness events, weave wellness into their corporate messaging and will take a meeting about wellness. Although you can still have a wellness program without senior leadership support, you’ll always struggle when it comes to budget and any recognition.

Caveats: if you have a population where senior leadership is not well regarded, then by all means, don’t use them to promote your program. Instead, use them for behind the scenes support, such as budget and relaying results.

Effort to implement: If you are lucky enough to have leaders already on board with wellness, there is not much you need to do to convince them.  It’s mostly getting them to buy into your strategy and giving them results.

If you don’t have leadership on board (this can even be the highest HR leader), it will be much harder to gain their support. This can and will be a future blog post because it’s so loaded.

I do have one recommendation – get some time on their calendars and interview them on what they want from a wellness program.  You may find that this gives you insight into how to sell the value of investing in employee health.

If you can’t even get a meeting with a senior leader about wellness, then you’ll need to focus on a grassroots effort with your employees.

Engaging Employees: My team member talked to an employer last week about their wellness program. When she suggested they survey their employees to see what they wanted, the employer said “I don’t care what they want”.  Um…we can’t help you build a successful wellness program.

Let’s say you’re not that employer and you want employee involvement. I would include the following as ways to involve your employees – wellness committees, health/wellness ambassadors, employee surveys and giving them ways to suggest or create program ideas.

Caveat: Determine what you want from them first.  Do you want them to generate ideas? Help you communicate? Engage their department? Set up clear goals for your employees that define what they are contributing. I’ve seen more poorly run wellness committees than I care to count. Read this post for ways to tell if you have a dysfunctional wellness committee.

Effort to Implement: It takes some initial work to get employees involved but if you set it up with a solid framework, it should eventually run with little effort from you.

Clear plans with results: If you are not trying to accomplish anything with your workplace wellness program, then there’s no need for a plan. If that’s not the case, figure out at least one measurable goal and how you plan to reach it. Don’t let it overwhelm you or over complicate it. No plan = No results.

Caveat: Don’t create a strategic plan if you won’t update it on a frequent basis.

Effort to Implement: This is a high effort task but completely worth it. It will keep your investments focused and results center stage.

Consistent communications: I’ve been the one in the wellness communication driver’s seat and I was amazed that I had employees who had no idea about our wellness program. Now that I’m the receiver of the wellness messages, I often tune out because my customers, employees and boss are more important to me than a wellness program message.

Don’t rely on one source of messaging, such as email, because most of us get way too many in a day. Consider the human element of messaging wellness activities. For example –

I’m more likely to attend something if a co-worker or friend is going.

If my boss asks me to do something, it gets done.

If there is a common interest – i.e. our department is trying to earn $1,000 towards a charity, I’m more likely to donate.

Create the mentality that “everyone’s doing it”, such as 85% of people have already completed their (fill in blank). I don’t want to be the slacker who’s one of the few who doesn’t do what everyone else is doing.

Caveats – Many departments like to communicate in their own ways. Try to go with the flow and tap into their existing sources of communication instead of forcing them to use yours.

Effort to Implement – I’m not going to sugar coat it, there is a lot effort and energy with communicating wellness programs to employees but it’s completely worth it.  What good is having a wellness program if your employees don’t know about it.

Creating a successful and results driven wellness program takes effort and energy. I hope you found the factors I’ve listed helpful and can easily determine if they would work for your employees.