Workplace wellness programs: Balancing benefits and reality

Workplace wellness programs aren’t all created equal. Some work better than others, and some organizations or employers are more effective than others at encouraging their staff to participate. The type of work being done, when and where it’s being completed, the age and demographics of your staff and the type of programs and incentives you offer all play a large role in determining program participation and how wellness is improved. Even the word “success” is subjective, as goals vary significantly from person to person and among organizations.

What isn’t at question is the value of wellness programs. Wellness statistics clearly show that workplace wellness programs are not only cost-effective to the organization but can assist the employee in developing a healthier lifestyle. Many employees struggle with their weight, don’t exercise at all, smoke, and don’t have effective strategies for managing stress. With the rising cost of medical care, proactive wellness efforts simply make sense. So where does the problem come in?

Maybe the best analogy is the “leading horse to water” axiom:  Once there, it’s still up to the horse whether or not to drink. No matter how beneficial, personally and fiscally, wellness programs work for some but not for all. Employers can have a greater impact on wellness program success by creating a positive environment for change, encouraging participation through good communication, useful information and support. Incentives, team recognition and access to adjunct programs all make a difference.

On the flip side, though, no matter how tempting, the “cattle prod” approach rarely achieves desired results. Despite our best intentions, we can’t browbeat or intimidate our employees to get healthier, and “punishing” them by withholding discounts or increasing benefit cost contributions to those who don’t participate often fails, as well. Some, in fact, see it as a basic human rights issue: Do we want or need our employer to tell us to eat our veggies, walk at lunch, or to lose 30 pounds?

Such tactics may result in resentments and retaliation, primarily in the form of rates of absence, reduced quality and “presenteeism” (decreased productivity on the job.) The solution, instead, tends to be persistence, patience, moderation, and opportunity. Wellness programs provide the structure, encouragement, incentives, and ongoing support that many individuals need in order to make lifestyle changes, but it doesn’t happen overnight, and it requires constant care and nurturing.

Finding a successful way to motivate people whose unhealthy habits are ingrained is not an easy task. But having the right tools helps. According to Carol DeVido Hauss, executive director, Literacy Volunteers of Greater Hartford, support through health assessment evaluations, wellness educational tools, and wellness websites is an important catalyst. “I love those tools,” Hauss says. “If I don’t write down what I eat, I’m pretty sure I assume the calories don’t count, so learning tricks like keeping track of calories and what and when I eat really helps me. We’ve declared our workplace a ‘donut-free zone.’”

Hauss stresses that finding the right blend of support and encouragement is an issue she, and most small employers, struggle with. “If you don’t work at it consistently, it’s easy to drop the ball as far as CBIA Healthy Connections or any wellness program goes,” she admits. “Personally, I used the tools, lost the weight I wanted to and got back on track with regular workouts. But I’m pretty disciplined when it comes to healthy living — I just needed a nudge and a little structure to get me back on track. And it did just that for me.”

A positive attitude on the part of management along with an opportunity for employees to have a stake in the decision-making may yield the greatest dividends to both employer and employee. The motivation and resolve needed to change unhealthy lifestyle habits can best be derived from the basic tenets of encouragement, respect, and support.

“People just need to be ready to change their lifestyles, and often they’re not,” reflects Hauss. “But if we, as employers, embrace wellness and offer these programs, at least our employees have a place to go to if they wake up some morning and decide it’s time to make those changes.”

To reap the benefits of a wellness program at your company, join CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!