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May 05, 2011
Is Your Wellness Program Sending the Right Message?

“Susie, please go to the principal’s office.” Such words strike fear into many a young heart and bring scary memories to many an older mind. Remember the dread you felt, as your steps echoed off the asbestos floor tiles, your heartbeat ringing in your ears?

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That’s not how a wellness program should feel, claims Henry Albrecht, CEO of online wellness company Limeade. “It should feel more like a field trip!” he says.

Albrecht brings business school, economics and statistics training together in online wellness company Limeade. “The central question behind this company was, ‘What if you could measure and help people improve their health and wellbeing in a way that’s statistically, validly predictive?’” Albrecht says.

“There is a lot of valid economic and statistical information that can be applied to wellness. Earlier in my career, I spent my time finding simple, graphical, easy ways for people to see where they stand financially, and to improve their positions. I thought, ‘Why don’t we take that same approach to employees’ overall wellbeing?’ So we developed an approach to measure wellbeing, productivity, and health that is quite unique.”

Wellness programs have evolved considerably since their genesis in the 1970s. Earlier versions, while well intentioned, sometimes came across in a less-than-positive way. “It is important to make wellness a positive experience, rather than antagonistic or even bullying. The first generation of wellness programs basically sought the 20% of people who were expending 40 to 80% of health costs. The programs singled those people out and gave them a bunch of information about how to fix themselves.

“The hope was they would get better and the companies would spend less money. That approach is not population-wide, so it kind of ignores the opportunity to keep the healthiest people engaged and healthy. And it can be antagonistic because you’re only called into the principal’s office if you’ve done something wrong.”

If you build it, will they come?

With the increase of technology-based solutions came inclusion of the entire employee population. That’s great, but Albrecht warns against thinking that just because you develop a wellness program does not mean people will want to participate. He says companies sometimes fall into an ‘If we build it, they will come,’ mentality. “Simply linking off of your employee portal to your health insurance company’s Health Risk Assessment and then assuming you have a wellness program is really missing the point,” he says. “A successful program requires the support and engagement to go beyond having a program just to say you have a program.”

In fact, Albrecht recommends that companies first document – in writing – the reasons they want to implement a wellness program. “Why are you doing this? What are your business goals? Sometimes companies tell us they don’t have a business goal; they just care about their people. But when you peel that back to get at what they’re really saying, it is often they care about their people and the loyalty of those employees is important to the business. Or, they care about their people, and their people are their best source of referrals for new talent. Or, they care about their people and they like to work with other caring people because, quite frankly, work is more fun that way. So you have to first examine the business goal.”

“Once you define the business goal, the wellness program becomes strategic,” Albrecht continues. “Even if the program costs so little that it’s a trivial amount of money, it has to be tied to strategy or there really is no point. In most cases, it is extremely important to get at employee performance, productivity and retention. What’s more important than those things?

“So if it is important enough, and you know why you’re doing it, the next question is how you can create a program in the best possible way. What are the best companies in the world doing in terms of wellness, and how can we be like them?”

Program communication important

Albrecht recommends communicating the program in a way that takes employee perceptions to heart because a poorly communicated wellness program is a potential source of employee concern or even backlash. “The communication must be done professionally, consistently, and with an element of fun and positivity. This isn’t a lecture, but is something the employees can do collectively, that can engage the employee population in something that, quite frankly, should be fun and positive. We like to use things like social challenges, and even rewarding people for things that are not necessarily about their health – like volunteering. It isn’t just about getting that flu shot.”

“We know from our experience in this type of program that you really need a tight product and message that is easy to deploy, simple to manage, where everything flows seamlessly,” Albrecht continues. “And most importantly, a program that provides support to the individuals involved in it year around. It’s not just about employees getting their screening, their report card, and their reward once a year. Do things like rewarding participation, rewarding improvements, and rewarding actually being within the healthy range proscribed by the government.”

Companies that fail to make their wellness programs engaging ensure that employees either will not participate, or will participate only grudgingly. Both attitudes defeat the purpose of the program. “If you’re in HR, the last thing you want to be thought of is the enemy of the employees,” Albrecht says. “If you can do this right, people will accept it and embrace it. They’ll feel that their company cares about their health and wellbeing. And that feeling – ‘my company cares about my wellbeing’ – is the number one driver of employee engagement.

“Don’t be afraid to set the bar high: Our research found that setting the bar high in any type of performance, and then measuring and managing toward that goal, along with clear communication about progress, is a sign of high-performing organizations. Companies that do that perform better overall than companies that don’t.”

Top-down support is critical

Critically important, says Albrecht, is that the wellness program is supported from the top of the organization down. “You want people to say, This is important to my company; the CEO is participating. She’s walking up and down the stairs, too, because it is important to her not to miss a week of work due to an injury that she could avoid, or not to have a heart attack. I hate to use the word ‘doomed,’ but if the people whose entire job it is to get the right kind of people engaged, psyched and productive are at odds with the executives of that company, doomed might not be the worst word in the world. A program is not likely to success if it obviously is, culturally, something the executives do not care about and would not model.”

Albrecht suggests that employees themselves play an active role in the direction your wellness program takes. “We try to get the employees to play a role in leading the program,” he says. “Engage people on a local level, make it relevant, have a local leader for each office, or a council that meets for half an hour once a month to come up with creative ideas.” In that way, the needs of the various locations and people working in them can be included. “So one office might not want to do a ‘take the stairs’ challenge because their building is only one level, but they wouldn’t mind walking half a mile each day at lunch. Getting it down to that local level of wellness is a way to keep the program from becoming a dead link from the employee portal.”

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