My family and I embrace a wellness lifestyle. Our wish for everyone would be to experience a full, holistic life of great health. In fact, we turned that passion into a business idea more than 30 years ago. Although our business has been successful, the mission is still incomplete. The citizens of our nation are in poor health, and there’s not a scalable solution to solve that problem in sight.
Still, I am an optimist. Some very good and unique ideas are out there. If you’d like a glimpse of the future of workplace health, check out Jon Robison, PhD, and Rosie Ward, PhD. Full disclosure here: We’re going to publish an upcoming book the two are working on. Their ideas are born of experience and get to the core issues of how to build healthy organizations.
For now, we have to take stock of the workplace wellness situation as it is.
The two 800-pound Gorillas in the Workplace Wellness room that few in the business like to talk about are:
1. Other than the “worried well,” not many people at any workplace actually want to participate in a wellness program unless they are paid a substantial incentive to do so (by being given money or being promised money will not be taken away). And then the participants/employees are no more than hired guns. Taking money in exchange for improving some engagement metric. But participants’ hearts and souls are not into wellness, and the “engagement” does not translate into long-term health.
2. Health risk factors are a theoretical concept irrelevant to most people. Try discussing health-risk factors with your own family if you don’t believe me. And most wellness programs are risk-based, meaning everything revolves around evaluating risk and reducing it. The concept is so problematic, on so many levels it’s jaw dropping. And it’s unsustainable. HRAs and biometric screenings have created a fascinating social construct where workplaces keep doing the wrong thing but don’t know why they’re doing it or even that it’s wrong. For example, all this screening is resulting in over diagnosis and treatment. Physicians Brawley and Welch have been talking about this for a while. But maybe Shannon Brownlee sums it up best in the title of her best-selling book, “Overtreatment, Why Too Much Medicine Is Making Us Sicker and Poorer.” So, when vendors tell me they’ve reduced health risks at a workplace I think, “Who knew?,” and “So what?” And I wonder how many healthy people they may have turned into patients.
Now I know you might be saying, “Hey, Connors, DUH! We know people don’t want to ‘sign up’ for wellness programs or complete HRAs.” Wellness vendors have done a very good job of building profitable business models around the concept of health-risks reduction. Too many times they convince clients (and themselves) that non-engagement can be conquered with brute force and will. Their solution is to increase incentives on your dime. Understandably it’s difficult for vendors to give up a strong revenue stream because the underlying theory that generates it is flawed.
No wellness vendors are saying, “Connors has a point; let’s stop generating millions in revenue, lay off the staff, and admit we need to do something different.”
I understand that. But I am not seeing any introspection as the laws of math point out the conventional wellness model is flawed. It would be heartening to hear acknowledgement of obvious shortcomings, and hear more about experimenting with revolutionary new concepts and paradigms. But, just the opposite is happening. Heels are being dug in, camps are forming, and the debate is becoming uncivil. See When Wellness Worlds Collide. This type of upheaval and public conflict are common symptoms of an aging business model. It’s tough being in the buggy whip and horse shoe business these days.
What has to happen? What has to change?
Healthy Cultures. Now I am not talking about pansy ass stuff where you re-shuffle meaningless workplace amenities, or work on altering perceptions with “the glass is half full” bromides and politically correct group exercises. I am talking about the tough stuff that comes up when you talk to professionals in Organizational Development (OD) and business owners. I am talking about firing sociopaths in management. . . building a telecommunication policy to accommodate a 21st century workplace. . . aligning compensation with performance. . . investing in ongoing staff training and education. . . team empowerment. . . reconfiguring the PTO program so it’s based on time off instead of illness. . .offering basic benefits that do a good job of serving people and their families. . . and clear communication of core business goals.
A healthy workplace requires strong basics tied to the business function. This stuff is simple, but extremely difficult to implement. We have to help workplaces make the common-sense choices they know they need to make.
Strategic Metrics. These include employee satisfaction with their work and careers. . . employee satisfaction and support of leadership. . .recruitment and retention data… the level of health awareness. . . and the level of involvement the entire workplace has with the surrounding community. Health-care cost reduction is not a goal. The entire nation will need to get healthier to accomplish that.
Long-Term Orientation. Building a healthy organization is like merging onto a highway rather than taking off from a launch pad. Don’t over schedule; don’t over promise; don’t cut corners. Building a strong and healthy workplace is like building core strength. It takes time and persistence. Once the core is strong, the organization becomes more capable and resilient. Think small steps, and then plan for the long term.
My suggestion is to think about a new era, where workplace wellness as it’s practiced today is history. And the work of building healthy workplaces takes places in the nitty gritty, ever changing, messy trenches of fiercely competitive spaces, in a shrinking world.
Shawn is the President and Founder of Hope Health. For over 30 years, his work has focused on bringing clear, easy-to-read and watch health messages to the public via workplaces. He bills himself as the “Best C+ Student in the Wellness Biz” because, as he says, “I like to challenge the notion that there is no such thing as a stupid question.” Shawn is on a mission to tie workplaces into their surrounding communities to share resources and ideas in an effort to improve the health of all Americans.
You may reach Shawn at sconnors@HopeHealth.com or 800-334-4094.