by Dean Witherspoon   Dean's profile on LinkedIn  

The new release of classic fairytale Cinderella reminds us that wellness sometimes gets little attention compared to other employee benefits. While health insurance and paid vacation aren’t the equivalent of Anastasia and Drizella, wellness managers need to remember we’re competing for budgets, time, and attention. So if you want to wear the glass slipper, you can’t wait for the Fairy Godmother to make an appearance — you have to take steps yourself to be invited to the ball. Here’s how:


  • Aim for new, fresh, exciting. We go to great lengths to build a better mousetrap in wellness, believing if we devise the perfect risk appraisal process, counseling technique, or mobile app that we’ll somehow convince nonparticipants to join in. In reality, people are attracted more to new, fresh, exciting, sexy than they are to the MS, RD, PhD, MD, CHES after staff names. Image is everything, and if your programs don’t appeal to what your clients want, all the double blind studies behind your service won’t mean a thing.
  • Be patient. Over time, quality services centered on individuals’ priorities will gain the respect needed to produce mass participation and widespread perceived value. Only when we ignore preferences and focus instead from the position of what we think employees need (based on our analysis of risk and claim data) do we fail to achieve the long-term appreciation needed for growth, additional funding, and appropriate staffing.
  • Don’t try to be all things to all people. You’ll fail. Most health promotion programs we know are understaffed and underbudgeted. Yet they’re still trying to offer a broad range of options that require twice the resources they have. The result is mediocre participation, delivery, and results. In many cases, you’re better off scaling back and putting more effort into promotion, ensuring value, and measuring impact. If you do cut back, it’s even more vital that you do the right things — not necessarily what you like to do, but what your clients want. 
  • Don’t try to forecast the future. If you’re using last year’s claim or healthcare cost data to predict what wellness services people will respond to, you’ll be successful only if you’re very lucky. Tomorrow’s changes at work, home, in the community, and within individuals are unknown. You can only go on what people tell you is important to them today. If you’re not asking, testing, refining, and delivering on what people care about, you may stumble upon the right formula. But it’s more likely you’ll appeal to a narrow slice of your population and have limited benefit.
  • Learn from success and failure. Success can lead to bad habits — especially if it resulted from dumb luck. But “wait a minute,” you say, “I work very hard and my hard work resulted in the success.” Maybe so, but wellness managers often have no idea why something produced high participation. For example, one manager we talked to recently had more than 80% participate in a screening at a remote location, when the same service at other locations had historically produced 25%. Assuming they had done a better job of promoting, they began staffing up for higher levels. When participation returned to the typical 25%, they went back and interviewed participants at the 80% site and discovered a rumor had circulated — that only those who went through the screening would be eligible for promotions (which makes you wonder about the 20% who didn’t participate). Here’s the point: Don’t just accept that you’re brilliant when you’re successful — find out what worked and why, so you can replicate it. Failure can be good too… at least on a small scale. If you cut your losses early, learn why you failed, and commit to never making the same mistake again, little failures can be very valuable. 
  • Don’t over-hype. For years wellness managers and academics touted the healthcare cost-saving and productivity-boosting virtues of wellness. And we have dozens of studies to “prove” we’re achieving 3:1 ROI. But when management buys into that argument and we fail to deliver, we’re hung out to dry. If you can’t prove it, or at least reasonably draw rational conclusions based on what you accomplish, don’t hype your services on something they may not deliver. Better to focus on perceived value, participation, and change in health behaviors than to predict influence over things you may not be able to control.

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