Really? Corporate Wellness?

I’d love to see workplace wellness work.

Certainly the cost of healthcare must come down, and prevention – especially turning around epidemic obesity and chronic disease - is key.

But I’m not sure the workplace is the best locus. Employers who succeed will reap great rewards: reduced healthcare costs, improved productivity, retention, and recruiting. Plus, for the same investment, a learning organization . (Because Wellness is a form of ongoing learning, the big payoff for those who step up to the challenges is that, while succeeding at prevention, the practices of learning will boost responsiveness, accountability, and competitiveness.)

But the risks are high - failure looms – for 4 main reasons:

Workplace wellness involves cultural change: a notoriously sensitive task. In 32 years of practice as a Business Anthropologist, I’ve seen many attempts backfire, and been brought in to fix a couple where new business imperatives were essential. All that came roaring back recently as I dug into a “Culture of Health” project for a prestigious company whose first attempts did not go well.

Successful Wellness initiatives, approached as culture change, will require internal dialogue between Benefits teams, Training and Development teams, and senior strategists crafting corporate culture. (The latter often overlooked: who owns corporate culture in your company?)

Wellness demands Lifestyle change: very tricky territory.
In addition to good old fashioned denial, employee concerns for privacy are high, and questioning lifestyle choices triggers concerns about diversity, autonomy and dignity. Food and eating are hardly rational matters: they’re deeply tied to early emotional experience and culture of origin.

Physicians and other healthcare providers attest to dogged resistance to lifestyle change, even among individual patients facing serious consequences. Well-established in diabetes and cancer treatment, success requires a great deal of reinforcement, role modeling, and social support.

Desired behavior changes require treating employees as customers of both benefits and corporate culture – customers who live in an environment shaped by the likes of Apple, Facebook, Google, Zappos, and Zynga. Engaging employees in new behaviors is possible, but it’s a big departure from traditional benefits communications .

“It starts with customers and the ability to create a better future for them.”

The task is to get overworked employees’ attention, and then - in seconds - spark their curiosity about how their future could be better if they engaged in the wellness behaviors you're requesting. An authoritarian approach is likely to boomerang to the opposite of the desired effects.

Employee cynicism is high ; people who have been working long hours for years are quick to ask, “In addition to all the extra work now required for my job, you want me to do what?” You might think that in this job market, after 3 years of recession, employees would be grateful to have a job. But this 2012 MetLife study warns:

    “This year’s findings reveal a workplace that has grown more dissatisfied and disloyal, to the point where one in three employees hopes to be working elsewhere in the next twelve months.”

A group of us asked ourselves, “What’s it going to take to consistently succeed in the kinds of behavior change that would be required to significantly reduce both risk and cost to both employers and employees?” We surveyed the literature. Not surprisingly, we found some good points, and a few key missing links:

  • Use the principles of consumer marketing: take all the necessary steps to reach employees where they are, in their language and timing
  • Introduce a new wellness initiative like a change in vendor or an office move
  • A solid qualitative study revealing current employee ecosystem and mindsets
  • Assume you know how employees segment around wellness, or what they’re thinking
  • Prepare internal stakeholders to respond to what is learned both from an ecosystem study and user-testing of new proposed programs and communications
  • Overlook potential “wicked paradoxes” such as perceptions that the work environment is essentially unhealthy
  • Map the journeys different employee segments may take to engaging with wellness, and do extensive user-testing (Service design)
  • Use focus groups that test proposed programs and materials separate from the context in which they will actually land for employees
  • Ensure you find out what’s important and engaging to different groups of employees, and enable them to pursue wellness their own way
  • Assume that incentives will motivate new desired behaviors
  • Learn about behavior change
  • Order employees to change their behavior (an authoritarian approach will ensure failure)
  • Invest in individualized communications and customizable programs
  • Assume that one size fits all
  • Take the time to do it right (customers proceed at their own pace)
  • Rush to meet a vendor’s timeline, eg for open enrollment
  • Make all desired corporate outcomes transparent, eg cost-savings, reduced absenteeism
  • Try to fool employees
  • Encourage/role model sharing of what employees are learning, trying, liking, disliking – enabling privacy when desired, such as chosen names on internal social media
  • Attempt to monitor what employees share about their learning
  • I would love to see workplace wellness succeed. That reward will come to those who take the cultural challenge and ‘employees as customers’ seriously: explicitly tying a new focus on wellness to an updated company core promise, treating the introduction of Wellness like launching any new product or service, and becoming a highly-responsive learning organization for the same investment.

    It’s not for the faint-hearted.

    Are You Fit to Thrive in Any Economy?