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.

    Marketing is dead; long live business

    A must-read review of the top 3 marketing books of 2011 provides a quick way to get up to date on the real challenges every business faces in the mission-critical game of staying connected to customers.  It goes way beyond marketing.

    Simon Mainwaring
    We First: How Brands and Consumers Use Social Media to Build a Better World
    (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)

    David A. Aaker
    Brand Relevance: Making Competitors Irrelevant
    (Jossey-Bass, 2011)

    Gary Vaynerchuk
    The Thank You Economy
    (Harper Business, 2011)

    “At first glance, the three best business books of 2011 on marketing seem to go in very different directions. However, they do share one trait: They pay only lip service to marketing. A couple of decades ago that might have disqualified them from consideration, but these days, a surprising number of marketing books aren’t all that high on marketing…

    “The real action is in the much tougher arena of rethinking the companies that sell the brands. So, in We First: How Brands and Consumers Use Social Media to Build a Better World, brand consultant Simon Mainwaring ponders the role of the corporation in addressing the world’s ills, tackling such topics as charitable giving, environmentalism, and sustainability. In Brand Relevance: Making Competitors Irrelevant, David A. Aaker, professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, looks at how companies can build brands that aren’t just new and improved, but unequaled. And in The Thank You Economy, wine-selling social media guru Gary Vaynerchuk advocates that marketers build a culture in which “good intent” is paramount. In each case, the authors emphasize that making these things happen requires fundamental shifts in corporate culture, not just marketing window dressing.

    “Yes, marketing is no longer about simple brand repositioning, but about corporate reinvention”

    The clarion call may appear idealistic, but it’s eminently practical: specifically, what it takes to survive.  This review cuts to the chase. Take a deep breath, sharpen your red pencil, bring in your best thinkers, and be ready to rethink your strategy and culture.  The three best marketing books of 2011 demand no less than being a responsible citizen, an inventor of new games, and operating with impeccable manners.

    “Only the companies that can figure out how to mind their manners in a very old-fashioned way — and do it authentically — are going to have a prayer of competing.”   -  The Thank You Economy

    I couldn’t agree more.

    Love Your Customers?

    Many of us have been reflecting deeply about what might re-power the economy as well as boost our own and our customers’ businesses. There’s certainly no shortage of clamoring, but little feels trustworthy.

    Browsing the new Strategy & Business Fall issue, I was struck by a couple of points:

    • The winners in the digital economy are those closest to customers
    • The companies that win at innovation are not those that invest more dollars in R&D; the winners are those who align strategy & culture to innovation.
    • (Of course the latter requires the former, as Prahalad and Krishnan aptly demonstrated.)

    Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose?  As a Business Anthropologist, intending no disrespect for an excellent business magazine and the journeyman research it reports, my first response was, “Duh.”  But how many businesses have employed Prahalad’s formulae?  Do we know what’s missing?

    Though everything seems to be changing, in fact many of the dynamics of commerce remain constant.  People do business with those they trust. And who is that? Those who demonstrate understanding of their ways and regard for their concerns.

    My esteemed teacher, Humberto Maturana, articulated what he called the biology of love: “The other is a legitimate other in coordination with me” (the other’s concerns are equally legitimate to my own.)   Commerce is a form of coordination – a form of relating – that engages all of our brains’ emotional wiring.  And thus, as we approach the Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S., I invite you to articulate your love for your customers.

    What I love about my customers is their ongoing passion for learning and stepping up to add more and more value.  If you are among them, please accept my gratitude for being on this learning journey with me, and for your commitment to looking after your employees, customers, and communities.

    Think love is not important in business? That couldn’t be what’s missing? I invite you to begin this holiday season by letting your customers know what you love about them. See if that doesn’t open ways to get closer to them, to better understand their concerns, and to deepen trust.

    Try holding their concerns as equal to your own.  When you realize that will require shifts in strategy and culture - no matter what size your business or division - you’ll know you’re on the right track.

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    Are You Fit to Thrive in Any Economy?