by Dean Witherspoon   Dean's profile on LinkedIn  

Whose Side Are You On?

You’re probably familiar with the us-against-them sentiment that sometimes develops between management and workers over issues of healthcare, benefits, confidentiality, and job security. Equally important in terms of participation is your approach to well-being — whether your intent is to fix health problems or support individual desire to improve quality of life. It’s an important distinction.


Where We’ve Been

For years wellness managers have subscribed to the model that if we simply highlight health risks and educate in risk reduction, individuals would somehow see the light and adopt healthier habits. And if we create a supportive environment — healthy foods in vending machines, work time for participating in wellness programs, and onsite fitness programs — it would result in even greater health improvement. And if that didn’t work we could offer a financial incentive. And if that didn’t work we create disincentives. Success has been limited.


Repeated health risk messages, punitive policies, and paring of overall healthcare benefits combine to create an atmosphere of suspicion toward management. It often runs deepest among production or manufacturing employees — driving them away from wellness services, when, ironically, they’re the groups most likely to benefit. This fix-it approach has resulted 
in wellness programs that plateau and stagnate, seeing the same participants over and over, having no bottom line business benefit for organizations.


Where We Need to Go

One of the reasons I like working here is Acme cares about my health and well-being. I see it in our wellness program.


You can talk about reducing health risks and costs while increasing productivity all you want, but until workers feel the way this one does about Acme, you’re not likely to generate big participation, and you’re certainly not going to affect organization health, cost, or risk. How do you get there?


  • Start by asking what they care about. Even though you think they should care about weight, cholesterol, high blood pressure, inactivity, etc., if it’s not first on their list, you’re wasting your time and theirs.
  • Ask how they would like to approach what they care about — self-help materials, individual counseling, internet resources, classroom programs — so you can deliver what’s most likely to fit their lifestyle, schedule, and comfort level.
  • Find out what health habit, if any, they’re ready to start working on today or in the near future. In most populations, more than half are ready to get started on at least 1 health improvement activity within the next 30 days.
Why It Works

You buy a car because it fulfills wants in your life — it’s fun, flashy, reliable, big, small, fast, safe, roomy, nimble, etc. Sales staff at the dealership ask you what you’re looking for, then attempt to convince you a car on the lot fulfills exactly what you’ve mentioned. They don’t try to sell you something you don’t want: “Sorry Mr. Jones... although you’d like to buy this red sports car, I really think with a wife and 2 kids you belong in a used minivan.”


As goofy as it sounds, wellness practitioners do that all the time. “Your risk profile indicates you really need to become more physically active, Mr. Jones...” We start giving advice before even trying to determine what Mr. Jones wants. For all we know, we’re trying to sell him the used minivan when he wants the red sports car.


Your clients need to believe you’re on their side; the only way to help them feel that way is to ask what they want and deliver it. That doesn’t mean you condone destructive health behaviors, but it does mean you start from where they are in terms of priorities and willingness to change, then try to move them in a positive health direction with a supportive environment and the right tools at the right time.


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