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Avoid Common Wellness Program Pitfalls
 

By Stephen Miller, CEBS  6/26/2012

ATLANTASeventy-five percent of health care spending is attributable to illnesses that are behavior-related and preventable, which explains why employers increasingly are focused on starting health improvement programs. Unfortunately, an all-too-typical employee response when asked about their employer’s program is, “I think we have something, but not many people use it.” So said Brad Cooper, CEO of US Corporate Wellness, a provider of employee wellness programs, during his presentation at the 2012 SHRM Annual Conference, held here June 24-27.

Five Frequent Errors

Cooper described the following common mistakes that afflict wellness programs and prevent them from improving workforce health:

Checking the box. There’s nothing wrong with biometric screenings, health risk assessments and call center access as elements of a wellness program, but they are only building blocks, not ends in themselves, Cooper said. “They make a nice base line, but it is not a wellness program.” The same is true of passive communications, which Cooper equated with “Eat your spinach” posters in the break room. These approaches are not changing lives. “If that’s all you’re willing to provide, stop wasting your time,” he argued. Instead, these steps need to be followed up with effective health coaching and wellness activities.

Using a “Scarlet Letter” strategy. Some organizations provide access to health coaching for “high-risk individuals” based on their health assessment scores. “Who wants to be in that group?” Cooper asked. Telling employees “You have to do coaching” is not a positive message, and it turns what should be the highest value aspect of a program into a negative. Instead, engage employees by making “high-participation, relationship-based coaching a natural part of the culture,” Cooper recommended.

Taking a “Robots R Us” approach. Computer-generated messaging is effective with robots, not people, Cooper said. “It’s simplistic to think that information leads directly to application; it doesn’t, or else we’d all make better food choices and burn off more calories than we take in.” But only one in 20 adults engage consistently in the five most important health behaviors: regular exercise, healthy levels and types of fat intake, five daily servings of fruits and vegetables, moderate drinking, and not smoking. And tellingly, not all patients receiving treatment for chronic conditions in clinical trials are compliant with their medication regimens. “We’re not talking about exercising, not dieting—just taking a pill,” Cooper noted. Another study showed that 90 percent of those who had had coronary artery bypass surgery had not changed their lifestyle two years later. Remedies include creating personal relationships between employees and wellness coaches, sending health promotion messages on an ongoing basis, and personalizing communications so employees feel that “it’s about me.”

Trying for a quick fix. Wellness initiatives often are treated as the “flavor of the month,” heralded with contests and lunch-and-learn events, then forgotten. “Avoid creating something quickly that doesn’t tap into long-term behavioral change,” Cooper advised. Instead, establish a comprehensive strategic plan that builds employee engagement over time.

Doing nothing. For many organizations, employee wellness is seen as “not urgent but important,” Cooper said. And when it comes to management’s focus, the urgent crowds out the important. But ignoring wellness on a corporate level can increase health care costs, sick time, disability and turnover, and can decrease productivity. “Do your homework and build support for wellness programs,” Cooper urged, “whether you have an established program that needs enhancing or you need to get started. Lay out a timeline over the coming week, month and quarter, and commit to getting others engaged.”  

Stephen Miller, CEBS, is an online editor/manager for SHRM. 

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