6 Ways to Take your Wellness Program from Authoritative to Empowering

I realize the word “empower” may be a bit over used in the corporate world. Often times, leaders tell you to to go and be empowered without a lot of explanation of what that means.You don’t get any new authority or power although that’s exactly the definition of empower (“to give power or authority to”).

So, what does empowerment have to do with corporate wellness programs? With the wellness programs I see, not a lot. Many wellness programs tend to take on an authoritative role, telling employees what they need to change, how to change it and what reward they’ll get if they follow this path. For example, a company I recently worked with determined that their employees needed to exercise, so they offered a choice to complete one of three options and if they did, they would get their premium reduced.

In this authoritative role, we don’t empower employees to decide what aspect of their health they want to improve and how they want to improve it. We take them out of the driver’s seat and make them take a back seat to our demands.

Quite frequently, I hear employers say that if there weren’t any guidelines through the wellness program, then their employees won’t take care of their health. They see it each month through expensive claims costs that give them the evidence that their employees are not getting any healthier. Authoritative wellness programs are often put in because employers are desperate to stop the bleeding. The solution – tell employees EXACTLY what you want them to do to improve their health.

The physical health of employees tends to be the #1 priority of wellness programs. However, this can be a bit short sighted considering thoughts and emotions tend to get in the way of being active and eating well. So how do you empower employees to make the health changes they want to make? Here are a few ways you can change the tone of your wellness program from authoritative to empowering.

Connect health to values and purpose – when someone doesn’t want to do something, they will find a way not to do it. If someone is not committed to taking care of their health, every excuse and barrier will stand in their way.

Think about the last time you skipped your workout or ate junk food. Did you know you were making an unhealthy choice? Probably. But you did it anyway because there was a very good reason, right? It was too cold…you had a bad day…you’ll make up for it tomorrow.

Although wellness programs can help motivate employees, motivation can wane over time if it’s not connected to a bigger purpose and core values. Ultimately, employees need to take accountability for their own health and you can’t do it for them.

So, what can you do? Help employees identify their values and get really clear on their top three to five. Many people say they value their health but when asked to prioritize values, health may find it’s way down the list. Some prioritize health as a top value then realize they aren’t take the necessary actions to substantiate that claim. There are tons of value exercises online you can incorporate into your wellness education.

Help them find their WHY by anchoring their health behavior to something more than just losing weight for that upcoming wedding or cruise. For example, I exercise not only because I enjoy it but it makes me a better employee, wife, mother and friend. I also feel better about myself when I exercise. What about an activity I don’t enjoy, like strength training (which I hate)? I try to connect it to the fact that not doing it will lead to injury, which takes me away from playing with my son and other activities I like to do.

Don’t assume – everyone has their own viewpoint and we see life through our unique perspective. When we are developing wellness programs for employees, we tend to create programs WE think are good for them or perhaps activities that resonate with us.

I’m a huge advocate for surveying your employees to find out what they are interested in and what’s standing in their way of being healthy. Get some focus groups together and ask your employees about their day (before, during and after work) and their perceived barriers to good health. Learning about your employees and their perspective on health (and particularly heath at work) can help you message healthy behaviors in a way they’ll respond to.

Ask questions instead of telling them what to do – wellness programs always have guidelines, parameters and expectations. We pretty much tell employees what to do and cross our fingers that they’ll have an a-ha moment that will change their lives. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen authoritative wellness programs change some people’s lives but it tends to turn more people off than needed.

I recently met with an employer and she thought that every one of her employees needed to be told exactly what to eat and be given a meal plan. In my experience as a dietitian, people would come to me because they wanted a meal plan that would help them magically lose weight. Those people never followed the meal plan so I quit giving them out. The people that accomplished their weight loss goals were ones that answered hard questions, examined their behaviors and came up with their own solutions.

It’s best to let people come to their own conclusions instead of telling them what to do. If they come up with the solution, they are much more likely to commit to changing. Ask questions to challenge their way of thinking. Some include:

  • – Are you happy with your current level of health?
  • – If not, what would you like to change?
  • – What would you do if you had more energy at the end of the day?
  • – Have you been successful at making a change in the past? If so, what made it successful?
  • – What are the benefits of changes? The costs?

A simple way to incorporate this concept into your wellness program is to have interested employees set SMART goals on the behaviors they want to improve. Also, if you have the budget, a good health coach can help your employees find their own solutions. The power of coaching lies within the principle that the employee holds the answer to his or her own change.

Be wary of incentives – We know incentives work for some things such as taking a survey or doing an activity that is a one and done, like taking a Health Assessment. There’s no evidence that proves external incentives like gift cards or premium contributions lead to sustained behavior changes. Despite this, employers always pair an incentive with a wellness activity. This undermines any genuine interest in your wellness programs and makes employees conditioned to being paid every time they participate.

Think how much money you could save if you cut your incentives in half and offered wellness programs your employees liked.

Flexibility of schedules – Treating your employees like adults who will get their work done without monitoring their every move goes a long way with most people. Letting employees have some flexibility in their work schedules to be healthier will gain you more loyalty and perhaps a more productive workforce. If an employee can get all of their work done well, why would you not allow them to go take a walk in the middle of the day or let them take a few extra minutes to work out during lunch?

I realize some industries, such as manufacturing, hospitals and municipalities, do not always have the flexibility like an office worker. They are often tied to a production schedule but with careful planning and supportive leadership, I’ve seen this work well in even the most rigid environments.

Here’s a quick summary of ways to empower employees with your wellness program:

    • – Align health changes with values and purpose
    • – Find out about employee barriers and interests; use this in employee communications
    • – Have your employees set SMART goals
    • – Hire a health coach to conduct individual or group sessions
    • – Pause before you incentivize wellness programs
    • – Offer employees some flexibility in their work schedule
        I realize it’s not easy or comfortable to relax on wellness program rules but we have to find different ways to engage employees in their health. Otherwise we’ll end up with a bunch of resentful employees who aren’t any healthier.