Do you think wellness programs work? To me it depends on what you mean by a wellness program and what “work” means.
A wellness program has no common definition. That means an employer who has a wellness program consisting of a health fair and a few lunch and learns technically have a wellness program. And what would happen as a result of a health fair and lunch and learns? Mostly nothing aside from a bit of education and awareness. Definitely not an ROI.
I struggle with the disconnect between what most employers put into place as a wellness program and the magic ROI they expect from it. I typically see wellness programs with no strategic direction, no staffing, maybe a small budget and at times, no leadership support. Those wellness programs won’t get you much of a result and therefore don’t work.
For some reason, there are still myths out there that every employer should “do” wellness and that putting in a half-assed program will give you a positive ROI. That’s why I was thrilled to see Kent et al (along with Ron Goetzel) publish a study in the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine titled “Promoting Healthy Workplaces by Building Cultures of Health and Applying Strategic Communications”.
This study was chock full of value but knowing most people don’t get pumped about reading journal articles, I wanted to pull out key aspects you should know if you have any wellness program (or are thinking of starting one).
So, what are the 2 critical elements?
Although the historical elements of successful wellness programs were mentioned, such as well-defined goals, leadership support and strong evaluation, the study focused on two newer elements – creating cultures of health and using strategic communications.
1.) Building a Culture of Health: this is defined as a workplace that places value on and is conducive to employee well-being. Sounds like it makes sense but what does it actually mean?
It means just not offering wellness “stuff” like a gym or healthy cafeteria but using the wellness/well-being message throughout the company.
Leaders practicing healthy behaviors (like you actually see them or hear about them eating healthy, managing stress, etc.).
Keeping resources over a sustained period of time (i.e. not slashing the wellness budget when you have a bad financial year).
Managers encouraging employees to participate in healthy activities.
Since a workplace culture is so complex, the study went further to highlights these three components.
Enhancing the physical environment – making the healthy choice the default choice. I was just at an employer today and unless the employee brought healthy food from home, it was nowhere to be found.
Socially supportive environment – buy in at all levels of the organization, including the middle managers, peer support and including spouses and other family members. Almost none of the groups I see involve family members despite the fact that spouse/partner has been associated with weight loss adherence and higher tobacco quit rates.
Employee engagement – welcome feedback and suggestions and incorporating these into future designs.
Ultimately, building a culture of health is moving wellness beyond just a program and embedding it within and throughout an organization.
2.) Strategic Communications:
I think we can all agree you need to make sure wellness programs are adequately communicated so how are strategic communications different? Strategic communications are one that educate, motivate, market and build trust. They are also designed to achieve well-defined objectives.
Think about the last wellness communication you put together. If it was a laundry list of what your employees had to do, then that’s not exactly a strategic communication.
The study walked through 4 ways to enhance your communications, which I’ve listed below.
Tailored and targeted – everyone responds to messaging differently and employees are more likely to engage when you make communications relevant to them. Never forget the “what’s in it for them”.
Multichanneled – using a variety of channels such as emails, newsletters, posters, word of mouth, intranet, etc.
Optimum timing, frequency and placement – carefully planned so employees are not overwhelmed (or underwhelmed).
Bidirectional – an ongoing effort to gain feedback and input from employees.
If all of the above makes you start panicking, think of this:
“Workplace programs need to be presented as simple to adopt and meaningful to the individual or social group”.
This boils it down and makes it easy for me to digest. Think simple and meaningful.
If this sounds like a lot of work, it absolutely is. One person can’t do this alone and it takes dedication and effort through an organization to make wellness “work”.
The study also went through some common wellness practices that DON’T work. I’ll save that for my next post, so sign up for my newsletter at the top of the page and you’ll get notified when it’s out.
You can view the abstract of the Kent et al study here.