RAND Report Discussion Part 2

Yesterday’s discussion centered on the Reuters article that stated that workplace wellness programs don’t help a business’ bottom line. There were a few elements that irked me, especially the fact that the headline doesn’t coincide with the realities exposed in the RAND report.

So many wellness programs fail because they don’t do anything. They don’t educate. They don’t evaluate. They don’t improve or change. They don’t value employee input. At that point, it becomes something like a potted plant. It’s there, it looks nice, it doesn’t contribute to anything worthwhile, and the only people to give a damn are the ones already interested in gardening.

Reuters may as well have put out a companion article titled “Neglected Office Plants Fail To Beautify Workplace.”

On a positive note, the article did highlight some absolute essentials for wellness program success.

“Traditional workplace wellness barely scratches the surface,” said Keith Lemer, president of WellNet, which provides programs to Cumulus Media, Viking Range Corp and the Charlie Palmer Group of restaurants, among others. “Done right, (the program) requires the integration of clinical data, wellness, health coaching, and work flow.” The initiatives succeed if they have “senior level support and a high-degree of employee engagement in healthy behaviors,” he said.

Any of this sound familiar?

Clinical Data

In other words, various measures of health. Waist circumference (BMI isn’t reliable for individuals), age, weight, and I guess you can collect things like pulse rates, blood pressure, and cholesterol if you really want to. I’d stick with fewer metrics on the clinical side, though, because you’re not operating a doctor’s office. You’re operating a wellness program. Age, weight, and waist circumference are all good metrics. Blood pressure and pulse rate seem good at an intuitive level, but both are things I have to explore a bit more in depth.


This seems a bit vague, but makes sense. When I put it in context with the rest of the quote, I see an emphasis on lower stress, better nutrition at work and at home, physical activity during the work day, and a focus on preventive measures for health instead of reactive ones (like medicine and doctor visits).

This is definitely one of those areas that relies a lot on the company culture. If your entire organization doesn’t buy whole-hog into wellness, you’re in for a rough ride.

Health Coaching

Social support is startlingly important, and startlingly absent, in many cookie cutter wellness programs. For instance, strong social support has been linked to helping fight/prevent diabetes. Diabetes, of course, is one of the most problematic diseases these days, with medical costs that aren’t exactly minor.

Having health coaching available to some degree is important. Whether you hire somebody explicitly for employee health coaching, or have a wellness team that includes someone with health coaching certification / experience, or just a bunch of people who are nutrition- and fitness-focused, it’s essential to have some form of coaching present.

Some people don’t know what’s good for them and what’s not. They might have an idea on a base level (“yeah, I know donuts aren’t good for me”), but they don’t really know the effects of food and activity on the body. (“I didn’t know all that processed sugar and flour made my acne so bad!”) Having health coaching that can guide people to better choices, and help them stay on track when they slip, goes a long way toward ensuring prolonged success.

Work Flow

This is another seemingly vague concept. What exactly is meant by “work flow” here? My best guess is to make sure that productivity is maintained or improved, despite the presence of wellness initiatives.

That’s why you need a wellness team with formal responsibilities regarding the wellness program. You can’t have a couple people working on it as a side project, prone to be shoved aside when “real work” rears its head. They don’t have to have responsibilities that take up four hours of every working day. Make it a handful of hours over the course of a couple weeks or a month, and ensure that the team is dedicated to wellness-related matters during those hours.

That way, your office maintains its general work flow (the stuff that brings in revenue), keeps a direct eye on wellness, and gets the best of both worlds.

Senior Level Support

A wellness team’s importance pales in comparison to the importance of senior support. Without senior support, you don’t get budget consideration. You don’t get middle manager support. Front line employees don’t see the need to participate. The program falls apart, money is wasted, and we get more articles saying that wellness programs don’t save money.

Winning senior level support almost always requires numbers. You get numbers through health and productivity data, which preferably is gathered, stored, and analyzed by your team. You know, things like absence days, sick days, sick leave, medical expenditures, medical claims… the list goes on. Effective analysis and description of the benefits of a fleshed-out wellness program are critical to helping woo senior level executives.

Playing to the benefits they would gain from the wellness program — both individually and company-wide — helps a lot, too.

High Degree of Employee Engagement

That’s where getting your employees involved, valuing their input, and providing good incentives comes in. If you get them to believe their voices are being heard and their needs are being met, you already have a good start. Get them to see the benefits of healthy behaviors (see: health coaching) and you’re bound to have high engagement.

So, that’s the upside to this Reuter’s article. Mr. Lemer made some good points.

Which of these “good behaviors” does your wellness program exhibit?

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2 Responses to RAND Report Discussion Part 2

  1. Lori Graham says:

    Very Interesting. If wellness programs, for the most part, are not successful, are employers also utilizing disease management programs as a method of curbing medical expenses? A good disease management program, that actually works one-on-one with employees with chronic conditions on a consistent, frequent basis is a proven cost savings and can improve employees health and decrease absenteeism due to illness.

    • James says:

      I doubt many employers are using disease management/prevention. The 2013 Global Workplace Health and Wellness Report’s survey indicates that fewer than a third of companies have implemented any sort of health coaching, education, fairs, screenings, etc.

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