9 Ways to Redesign the Common Worksite Wellness Program

With all the heated debate and controversy over worksite wellness with questions like “does it work” and “does it get an ROI”, I’ve started to wonder if we’re asking the right questions.

I propose we reframe the question to this:

Do companies take the health and wellness of their employees seriously?

I think every CEO would say the health of their employees is very important but in my experience, rarely are the resources and attention dedicated to creating an effective wellness program.

Worksite wellness should be treated just like any other business initiative in your company. Unfortunately, it rarely gets the attention it deserves. Often the responsibilities are thrown on an overworked HR person who already has too much on their plate.

Wellness turns into haphazard activities, the same people participating and maybe the occasional Biggest Loser contest. Then you pray you’ll find something in your annual healthcare claims that shows a positive ROI. That’s not the way results happen!

Although there are some larger companies and start ups that do put the energy and effort into building a strong culture of health, most companies spend a lot of time on haphazard activities with no clear direction. And these activities usually stay in HR with little exposure to the CEO.

We can bitch and moan about what works vs doesn’t work in wellness but I think we have to be honest about the average wellness program and it’s importance to the organization. Let’s admit most wellness programs are made up of health fairs and lunch and learns or employees putting checks in boxes to earn high incentives.

It’s completely fine if your company wants to stay in the land of health fairs and lunch and learns….just don’t expect employees to get healthier, a reduction in claims cost or a dramatic ROI. For those companies that want to shift their thinking around wellness, I encourage you to read on.

A little over two months ago, I started a podcast (Redesigning Wellness) to accomplish two things:

1.) To challenge the wellness status quo and discuss ways we can make wellness a better and more effective experience for employees.

2.) To give employers, HR and wellness pros tangible tips to starting a wellness program that employees actually like.

After my many years of industry experience and my conversations with my podcast guests, here are 9 ideas I recommend to redesign the common worksite wellness program.

Ditch the old way of thinking. Today’s approach to wellness is very transactional. Ask your employees to do health related activities to get some type of incentive. Companies like this type of approach because you have participation numbers to track and you feel like employees will get healthier once you make them do this “stuff”. This not only makes employees feel like they have extra work to do (in addition to their regular workload) but it takes the autonomy out of wellness.

I recommend employers ditch the traditional “do things to get incentives approach” and get comfortable with a non-transactional approach to wellness. Be ok with not making employees put a check in the wellness box. Get rid of a premium contribution model that encourages compliance and inflated levels of participation. Offer employees what they want, the ways they want it and you will not have to worry about incenting them to death. This can open up a new way of thinking about employee health and wellness.

Evin Cole, Director of Strategic Customer Engagement at Kaiser Permanente, has a great saying she calls “Wellness by Subtraction”. I summarize it this way…quit giving your employees one more thing to do. Instead think about how you can make your employees’ lives easier.

Let’s redefine the word “wellness”. The word wellness is used everywhere (even in dog food) and most companies define it as nutrition and fitness. When I tell people I help employers create healthy workplaces, their eyes glaze over. Then they go on to tell me they have exercise classes at work or that they just went to a cooking demo. Alrighty then. It’s hard to explain to them that wellness includes more than diet and exercise.

Matt Lund, Executive Director of the National Wellness Institute (NWI), described their 6 Dimensions of Wellness model. NWI was created on these 6 dimensions of wellness – occupational, physical, spiritual, emotional, social and intellectual. Notice that physical is only one of the dimensions.

Wellness programs need to expand to address factors like sleep, financial wellness, stress and resilience along with an attention to building a healthy culture. We have to consider there’s a lot standing in the way of behavior change. Simply telling employees to walk more or eat better won’t transform their health.

Move from wellness programs to total organizational health. The word “program” has been ingrained in my head since I started in worksite wellness many years ago (and honestly, I still use it all the time). Both Jennifer Pitts and Dee Edington expanded my thinking as they discussed their approach to wellness.

Dee advised moving away from the programs that make up wellness programs and move towards helping people live to their best quality of life and their highest level of performance. Jennifer advised us on how to collaborate more broadly inside and outside of your company. If you’re having trouble starting a wellness movement, start wherever you can gain leverage or a foothold. Ultimately, we can’t solve the wicked problem of poor health with the tame solutions we have today. Wellness programs are a tame solution to poor health.

Consult an expert. I once had an HR professional show up to a meeting with a huge stack of internet research she had done on worksite wellness. The poor person was exasperated and she realized she needed an expert to help her. Luckily, her insurance broker encourage my services and even helped her get the insurance company to pay the fees.

If the HR professional doesn’t have the time or desire to wade through a million google searches, employers rely on wellness guidance from their insurance brokers. Insurance brokers are a much needed partner for most employers in helping them design benefits. Ask them to help you design a plan that eliminates barriers to preventive care, refilling meds and managing chronic diseases.

Several brokers or insurance consultants have wellness experts on staff that can lend some advice but they are usually strapped with a ton of clients. If you want someone to design an organizational health and wellness strategy, hire for that expertise.

In full disclosure, I’m a consultant but I’m happy to refer to a handful of other health and wellness consultants who will create a customized approach.

Train and/or don’t go cheap on your staff: There are two common scenarios I see. The most common one is the wellness duties get slapped onto an HR person’s desk and now their title is Event Planner/Recruiter/Wellness Coordinator (real title). That person now has to be the wellness “expert” despite all of their other duties. Wellness (or organizational health) is seen as something anyone can do, so no additional training required.

The other scenario is that most companies define wellness as fitness and nutrition programs, therefore tend to hire folks with this expertise right out of school for low cost. These fresh recruits come out of school all fired up to change the world with good health and then realize…some people don’t care. Or that their voice is not heard at any level of seriousness within the organization.

One HR professional I was talking to lately, talked about the hyper, fitness-minded enthusiast (i.e. their wellness person) who went from desk to desk trying to get people to join her on a walk. When my friend pulled her aside to give her advice on a more subtle way of helping people, the wellness person went on a tangent about how they needed to get healthy. Some great feedback fell on deaf ears.

Since my time as a young dietitian employed as the wellness person, my viewpoint has shifted dramatically and I can tell you with experience comes wisdom. There’s still plenty I don’t know but one thing I recently learned from my conversation with Mark Dessauer is ….it’s about focusing on the employees’ values rather than my own. Just because I value my fitness and prioritize it doesn’t mean that should be everyone’s focus. Listen to your employees and they’ll tell you where (or if) they want to start on their journey.

Put your wellness staff in Organizational Development. This was a smart idea from Ryan Picarella, President of WELCOA. If a company is lucky enough to get a wellness position staffed, they usually end up working in the Benefits department.

That automatically puts the focus of wellness on lowering costs and trying to fix things that can’t be fixed with wellness, like most high cost claimants. Yes, the data from healthcare costs is relevant to an overall wellness strategy but shouldn’t be the sole focus.

By putting the wellness staff in OD or training and development, you are more aligned with what’s going on in the business. These areas of the company are looking to enhance the employee experience and help workers work to their highest potential. Isn’t that what wellness should focus on instead of being an ineffective cost containment measure?

The Forgotten Environment. Don’t expect your employees to make radical behavior changes when you put them in an unhealthy environment. I’ve fallen victim to this myself and it’s easy to do. Work environments aren’t always the easiest to navigate when you are trying to live a healthy life. The unhealthy food, countless hours of sitting, never ending work load, toxic work relationships….and you wonder why your employees aren’t managing their diabetes or responding to health coach calls.

Have someone do an environmental audit of the work environment or better yet, ask your employees how supportive the company is towards their health and wellness efforts and what they need to increase that support. You may not be able to meet all of their requests but even taking one step towards a healthier environment can help them feel supported.

Focus on YOU practices A common question I hear is “what are other companies doing?”. This can be a dangerous question because company cultures widely vary. What works in one organization may not work in another. Brian Passon made a great point. Instead of focusing on best practices or next practices, focus on you practices. In other words, find out what works in your organization and what kind of company you want to be before comparing yourself to others.

Don’t outsource your strategy to a wellness vendor. I always recommend employers who spend any money on wellness should invest in a wellness strategy (again, hire an expert). There are plenty of companies that invest in a health and wellness vendor as a solution to employee health. Those vendors can fill a necessary gap with technology, staffing and/or expertise.

I’ve seen too many employers bring on a vendor and expect them to come up with success metrics or direction for the company’s wellness efforts. Vendors are there to provide a specific service with specific service agreements. They aren’t solely responsible for getting your employees “healthy”. Let your wellness vendor do what you hired them for and not hold them accountable for your overall wellness strategy.

So, there you have it. My 9 ways to redesign the common worksite wellness program. Although I didn’t list all of my podcast guests, I want to thank each and every one for expanding my thinking around wellness and helping me challenge the status quo.