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With health care costs expected to increase at an average of 10 percent per year globally, changing employee health habits is critical to reducing the growing epidemic of obesity and the accompanying rising incidences of chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. These alarming trends have led to a surge in corporate health and wellness programs in recent years, with options ranging from onsite health screenings to treadmill desks to lunchtime yoga.
The Global Corporate Challenge (GCC), founded in 2004, is a yearlong workplace health and wellness program that begins with an interactive, 100-day, team-based competition. The goal is for each team member to take 10,000 steps per day—the World Health Organization’s recommended average number of daily steps needed for a lifestyle to be considered active—as a way to improve employees’ fitness.
Here’s how it works: Participants within organizations form teams, receive 3D accelerometers and record their daily physical activity at the GCC website. The teams engage in a virtual race around the world, as their steps are converted into miles and kilometers.
The 2013 event drew more than 262,000 participants from over 1,500 companies across 158 countries.
GCC Founder and President Glenn Riseley and GCC Senior Healthcare Director Nancy Board, GPHR, talked to SHRM Online about the current state of corporate health and wellness efforts, what it takes for these initiatives to succeed across borders, and common arguments against wellness programs.
SHRM Online: What is the current state of multinational companies’ preventive efforts around health and wellness?
Riseley: The word wellness is open to many different interpretations. Too often in the U.S., it becomes a box-ticking exercise for companies who are anxious to be seen as doing the right thing. The employers who do it properly are the ones that view health and wellness as critically as they view health and safety. These employers have moved beyond just offering wellness because it is the right thing to do, to designing their programs so that employees and employers work together to make tangible, measurable performance improvements. They are changing the way wellness is perceived so that employees are taking personal responsibility for their health and are actively engaged.
SHRM Online: What are some of the difficulties multinationals have administering health and wellness programs across borders?
Board: Managers often feel at a loss when first considering how to administer health and wellness programs across borders and regions since most company benefits are customized by country and are region-specific. Another major challenge, and often a huge stumbling block, is how to make programs and initiatives fit culturally. If they don’t fit within the cultural context, forget it. You’re just wasting time, money and resources. When rolling out a health and wellness program that fits everyone, it’s important to consider working with an organization that already has the experience and understanding of how these programs can work across borders and cross-culturally. Additionally, internal buy-in with stakeholders at all levels is critical to long-term success. The local leadership must support these initiatives, too, not just headquarters staff, if you want to achieve maximum success.
SHRM Online: In which regions are you seeing more acceptance of preventive health programs, and where are you seeing resistance?
Board: Preventative health is not uncommon in many parts of the world. However, we may not refer to it as “prevention” in some countries. For instance, drinking green tea and eating a plant-based diet has been around for thousands of years in some countries, yet in the U.S. we see this as a relatively new phenomenon and now consider better nutritional choices as preventative health. The U.S. comes to mind first in terms of being the new kid on the block to look at prevention related to health. And until we get a handle on our food choices and quantities in this country, nutrition remains a major factor in the overall state of our health. Countries such as China, India and Japan, for instance, have viewed health holistically for ages and understand that health and wellness is also about an individual’s overall well-being. We could learn a lot by understanding more about these cultures where practices of well-being have been around for centuries.
On the other hand, smoking has dropped by over half in the U.S. in the past 40 years, yet roughly 18 percent of Americans still smoke despite years of educational efforts about the risks. And we certainly see a great deal of smoking occurring outside of the U.S., so much so that adopting no-smoking policies are not completely the norm just yet in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Eastern Europe, and in particular Russia, have high levels of smoking while Indonesia leads the way in Asia. Country health ministers often feel defeated by the power of the tobacco industry and cheap cost of cigarettes.
SHRM Online: What does a health and wellness program typically consist of?
Riseley: Certainly in the U.S., the push still seems to be for employers to focus on health risk assessments and biometric screening and a series of incentives to pull employees along. The most enlightened employers are becoming conscious of the fact that investing most of their budget just measuring the problem won’t actually fix the problem. Wellness needs to be brought to life and embedded in the workplace culture. It needs to be fun and engaging, and employees need to feel like it is being done for them, not just being done to them.
SHRM Online: What are some of the more innovative, creative elements you’re seeing?
Riseley: The most overlooked element over the past 20 years has been the most important ingredient of all—fun. The best way to approach health and wellness in a workplace is to think of it as preventative medicine. Ultimately, that is what workplace wellness is all about: getting employees to do the right things today so that they don’t show up tired, unhappy and disengaged tomorrow—or, even worse, show up at the emergency room instead of the workplace. So ensuring that employees take the preventative medicine means it has to taste good. Wellness programs require creativity and engagement; otherwise, nobody signs up or sticks with it.
SHRM Online: Can you give an example of a fun, creative element?
Board: Sure. Team-based challenges are one way to easily engage staff and add a fun and competitive component to their day. Having teams come up with creative names and offering local competitions can help keep people energized and focused on their goals. Teamwork, coaching, support and having fun is often what’s needed to help those that find changing their behaviors the most difficult.
SHRM Online: What are some common arguments that you’ve heard against corporate health and wellness programs?
Board: That they can’t work or that they will never work. Also that they are money-drainers and do nothing for long-term, sustainable behavior change. Though this is certainly true of some programs, it’s not the case for all. Health and wellness programs need to be driven from the top down and the bottom up. Senior leaders that “walk the talk” of their corporation’s wellness initiatives and listen to and support their employees in positive ways will gain much further traction and employee trust than those that simply want to tick a box and say they have a program.
SHRM Online: What other factors enable health and wellness programs to succeed?
Board: Executive buy-in and support is absolutely critical for wellness programs to be truly successful.
Employers may try out various programs that offer a financial incentive or other reward that is meant to encourage participation, which can make a difference in the short term, but most employees will not maintain compliance long term unless there is intrinsic value in their efforts. Many wellness programs that offer a premium discount, incentive or penalty will see some short-term success, but this is why it’s so important for companies to view health and wellness initiatives with a long-term lens, and think critically about the message they present employees directly and indirectly. You cannot bore people into changing, nor can you buy their loyalty. Success is built on trust, mutual respect, fairness, and ensuring health is built into the fabric and culture of the organization.
SHRM Online: How are these programs addressing mental health?
Board: Mental health issues are far too often neglected within companies. Yet successful health and wellness programs will include multiple ways for employees to address mental health needs and reduce stress. More often than not, mental health is left out of the discussion of health and wellness and left strictly for the employee assistance program professionals to address. Stress reduction and building a sense of resilience should be cornerstones of every health and wellness program and need to be deeply embedded inside physical activity programs. A holistic approach to health and wellness is one that addresses the individual needs from head to toe and everything in between.
SHRM Online: What are some simple tips for HR practitioners implementing health and wellness programs in the office?
Riseley: Approach health and wellness in the same way you approach servicing your machinery. You wouldn’t try to do it yourself or have someone unqualified potentially doing damage to your business’s greatest asset. So allocate budget and do it right. Even if the budget is small and you can only impact a modest percentage of your employees, it will demonstrate that you can achieve results, which will loosen the purse strings up for the following year. Make it fun and engaging.
Don’t fall into the trap of only attracting the already-healthy employees who tend to sign up for anything you offer. These people are already healthy and engaged. The trick is to focus your energy on the ones who need it the most. And don’t offer everything at once. Too many choices overwhelm people, so you need to have a plan that rolls out each element gradually in a way that means people can access programs when they’re ready.
Measure everything. What gets measured gets managed, and the more data you have to demonstrate to the leaders in your organization that you are moving the needle in the right direction, the more budget you will have allocated next year and the more impact you can have on the greatest number of lives.
Also get leaders involved.
Board: Walk the talk by ensuring that the organization is serious about wellness. This might mean changing the food you cater meetings with and making walking meetings a valid and acceptable way to work.
Riseley: Don’t let feelings override facts. Workplace wellness needs to be a nuanced blend of science and art, but the science part isn’t negotiable. You can’t compromise on how long it takes for new behaviors to be repeated until they become habits, and you can’t compromise on how active a healthy adult needs to be or on what a healthy diet is.
Board: Be patient by accepting that workplace wellness is an opportunity to change employees’ attitudes and behaviors and that these have been embedded over decades.
The GCC 2014 program starts May 28. You can find out more here.
Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
Follow him at @SHRMRoy
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