Does Wellness Program Engagement Really Matter?

No. And yes. For years, well-being practitioners have pursued their vocation as if wellness program engagement and participation were the most important workplace considerations in the lives of those they serve. They’re not… by a long shot.

What Matters More Than Wellness Program Engagement

At the top of the list are things like challenging, meaningful work, contributing to something bigger than themselves, and appropriate recognition/compensation. And when it comes to benefits, your program may not even crack the top 10, depending on the individual and their life/career stage.

The realization that wellness programs aren’t highly valued across the board, combined with the inherent difficulty of improving population health behaviors, has given rise to a splinter industry. It often leads with “workplace wellness doesn’t work,” then proceeds to lay out the model that does. That framework typically varies depending on the vendor and what the recurring revenue stream looks like at the end of a consulting gig.

But the either/or argument misses the point. Workplace wellness doesn’t work when people hate their jobs, boss, or organization. We can’t throw someone into a toxic situation and fix it with 2-minute timeout stretching routines and healthy choices in vending machines. When employees do feel good about their jobs, however, wellness programs can work… and very well at that.

An examination of Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For 2019 demonstrates that great workplaces often include robust wellness offerings. Similarly, organizations receiving recognition within the wellness industry are filled with employees who say it’s a great place to work, in part because the employer supports overall health and well-being. Purveyors of traditional wellness services take the credit, while those who claim wellness doesn’t work suggest enhanced well-being is a byproduct of better alignment.

Show Me the Data

The wellness industry became its own worst enemy more than 2 decades ago when it pursued the holy grail of return on investment (and more recently, value on investment). A program or vendor would run their risk, participation, and behavior data through an academic formula producing a lot of gobbledygook that magically resulted in 3:1 ROI. Unfortunately, even mild scrutiny of the measurement and analysis methodology punches big holes in the conclusion.

The irony is that most of the C-suite doesn’t care about wellness program ROI. Yes, they care a great deal about the organization’s healthcare expense and getting it under control. But they’re savvy business people who can look at 3:1 and know instantly it’s a made-up number. To maintain credibility within your company, don’t try or buy for ROI (rhyme unintended).

They also do care whether they’re able to hire and retain the best employees. And they do care if workers are engaged and productive. So the best leaders in a thriving organization ultimately care a lot about worker health, happiness, and a population that finds meaning and purpose in their work. Why? Not because they’re necessarily great humanitarians. The smartest leaders care because they know that these conditions contribute to profits, particularly over the long term.

What to Do and Not Do

If you’re in a situation where people generally dislike where they work and you’re not in a position to change that, start looking for another job. But if the climate is neutral to positive, you have a great opportunity to make a difference in individual lives as well as influence the culture more broadly:

  • Do set program objectives that aim for personal well-being and contribute to a positive environment.
  • Don’t set risk reduction or cost savings goals over which you have little or no control.
  • Do measure your progress toward well-being and culture goals over time and adjust based on what your population is telling you.
  • Don’t set it and forget it.
  • Do ask employees what they want and are ready to act on. Then deliver it.
  • Don’t make wellness participation mandatory to earn a reward or avoid punishment. Only voluntary participation can lead to long-term results.
  • Do create opportunities for team, department, and buddy participation wherever it makes sense.
  • Don’t overemphasize competition. While some thrive on it, others are turned off. The social aspects of wellness programs should be designed to support without pressure to achieve.
  • Do emphasize health and quality of life in the near term and on a personal level.
  • Don’t focus on risk reduction — employees have more significant issues today than something that might happen in 20 years.
  • Do keep offering ways for people to enhance physical health — it will always be a top priority for many.
  • Don’t try to be all things to all people. Whatever well-being programs you offer, make sure they’re top shelf.
  • Do work to embed well-being across functions and leverage the talents and tools of departments, teams, unions, and individual workers.
  • Don’t make your wellness program an island with specialized staff given sole responsibility for your goals.
  • Do market your program like it’s a mission-critical service line; it is.
  • Don’t assume people will find your offerings on their own; they won’t.
  • Do get out and talk to people around the organization; set the expectation that your staff will, too.
  • Don’t expect to run a successful wellness program from your desk.

3 Comments. Leave new

  • Thanks for this excellent review of the value of wellness programming. This is especially pertinent in the wake of the NY Times article stating the Wellness Programs Yield Little Benefit (4/16/19)

  • Love these. Its like the Holy Grail to implementing a successful wellness program. We have to humanize our approach. Create connections between staff to show a culture of caring about everyone’s well being. Create activities suitable, during as well as after work, to build comradery across departments removing the stigmatic siloed departmental approach to the work place..

  • Lisa Kelly
    May 1, 2019 6:00 pm

    Well said! Sage advice for WW professionals and leadership. Thanks!


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