by Dean Witherspoon   Dean's profile on LinkedIn  

Is it national health statistics? Health risk appraisal results? Health benefit costs? Workers compensation claims? 


For years, wellness managers have been using data like this to determine where to direct resources. And for good reason — each can be tied directly to costs. There’s only one problem with this approach: In most instances, the people who create the costs don’t care. 

That’s a hard thing to accept. We think if we simply identify the high-cost/high-risk users, approach them with information, support what’s good for them — all while reducing the organization’s expense — they’ll naturally modify their lifestyle and we’ll all live happily ever after. Not so much.

We use 2 reality phrases when consulting with organizations about how to invest health promotion resources:


  • People don’t set their watch by your wellness program. In other words, it’s pretty low on most people’s priorities. If you stop 100 people on Monday morning and ask to examine their to-do list for the week, you’re not likely to find many sign up for health coaching at the top. We’re that blunt about the average worker’s nonchalance because we’re trying to jolt wellness professionals into the truth that people don’t do what’s good for them — they do what feels good. Until something about your offerings feels good, really good, you won’t get the time of day from most people. 

  • People don’t care about what they don’t care about. In our experience, 8 of 10 wellness programs have no idea what their population cares about. We must ask, test, track, or evaluate concerns/interests in a systematic way, not simply look at the health risk or expense data and somehow arrive at the conclusion that attacking those areas will produce the desired results. 

Occasionally, we get lucky. Participant interests plus risk and/or cost converge and we’re able to help people improve health and quality of life. But we often miss the mark, attracting only a small fraction of the at-risk group and a few loyal, regular participants.


What to Do


Commit to find out your population’s priorities — in addition to, or instead of, what your risk or cost data says. In marketing this is expressed as wants versus needs. Wants are always ahead of needs as long as basic needs (food, clothing, shelter, etc.) are met; if basic needs aren’t met, they become wants. 
With health, if basic needs are met (no immediate illness or life-threatening risk), wants become more personal, cosmetic, and convenience oriented. There’s no way to distinguish wants from risk or cost analysis; you have to ask. Here are some ideas:


  • General health interests. You can come up with dozens of physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual health interest topics for participants to select. If you limit it to past programming areas, you’re sure to miss some significant wants. For example, a recent client assessment found their female employees now ranked financial planning among their top 4 concerns. 

  • Perceived health. Individual perception of health correlates with actual health status. Ask about perceived health, then stratify your population and adjust your message accordingly — as well as compare perceived health over time.

  • Chronic conditions. Someone with a chronic condition who has expressed an interest or readiness to change is an easy program target, but you’ll never know that if you don’t ask.

  • Readiness to change. The greatest advantage to knowing stage of readiness is ability to focus appropriate resources where they’re needed, and stop wasting time and energy on areas you’re not likely to affect.

  • Preferences. People learn in different ways. A single approach to address everyone’s interest in healthy eating will miss more people than it attracts. Again, ask how people want information and support. 


In short, we’re suggesting a marketing approach to wellness — understanding what people want and giving it to them in a way that meets their needs, enhances their life, and makes them feel better about themselves. Once you switch to this mindset, program direction will take care of itself, because people’s wants are revealed through every interaction.

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