The Wellness Paradox: Personal versus Business

Is corporate wellness business or personal? Actually that's a trick question, because it's really both. However, it can't appear that way if you want to get the most value from it. Wellness branding, positioning and program structure is critical, and if it looks more business than personal, then you might struggle to get your employees engaged.

Health promotion is (or should be) about enabling your employees to become better versions of themselves. It's about improving individual lifestyles to boost health, energy, and optimism. That's personal. Clearly there is a benefit to your business if you can achieve this on a broad scale across your population, but from your employee's perspective, it's definitely personal. Therein lies the paradox: to get the best business value you need to create a program that provides your employees personal value. Your goals may be to manage company costs and workforce performance, but to get it, you should be aiming at giving your employees what they need to personally succeed. And by genuinely creating and promoting employee wellness services in this manner, you will naturally get better engagement and outcomes from them.

To many this idea is about creating a "culture of health." The term is thrown around way too much in our industry, and in reality, most companies that are talking about a "culture of health" don't actually have one.

I witnessed a great example of the term's misuse (and misunderstanding) at a recent conference. The wellness coordinator of a very prominent healthcare company presented a session relating to their corporate vision of becoming the healthiest workforce in America. She then proceeded to talk about a "culture of health" as one of their implementation strategies. Um, what? A strong culture is an outcome, not an activity that can be implemented. And I'm sorry, but many of the traditional approaches to activity based and incentive driven programming that were outlined sound pretty similar to most common programs.

But I digress. The point is it appears many in our industry are confused about what a culture is. A culture is where the values and beliefs of a group are aligned, and a strong one fosters a set of commonly expected actions and behaviors. That is, a culture of health is where a group values good health, and where the actions and behaviors of the group reflect those values. A culture is not built on compliance, manipulation, or incentive driven behaviors. A culture is what happens when people choose to behave in the way that is most aligned with group expectations.

To create a strong culture, your actions must match your words and beliefs. This brings me back to how organizations create and promote their wellness programs. If you talk about valuing employee health but then maintain work practices or work environments which don't reflect that value; then your actions don't match your words, and your culture is unclear. Many companies talk about valuing their employees and promoting a culture of health and then attempt to control employee behaviors through incentives, or by dictating an individual's health goals or activities. A smorgasbord of health promotion activities occur in the periphery of the workplace and require employees to opt in, log on, count points, or show up outside of their normal work flow. The activities are disjointed and sustaining engagement is always a challenge. Employees can see that most of these approaches are not genuine, and that makes them defensive. If you require incentives to get participation or outcomes, then you're not giving employees what they need to succeed, but rather you're telling them to make do with what you give them. This screams "wellness for business." You're willing to offer a few gimmicky programs and encouragement via incentives, but you're really not integrating the value of health into your operation.

In contrast, approaches which integrate wellness communications and activities into the natural work flow makes a clear statement that your organization doesn't just promote health - you genuinely value it. You are imbedding it into your roots, your operational objectives, and exposing all employees as a natural part of their job. You are sending a message that coming to work is an opportunity to become healthier. It's not an add-on that you hope people do if they have time (or that you not-so-subtly suggest they make time for); it's simply a part of doing business. This shows your employees that you want to give them what they need to succeed. You are giving them greater personal value. This aligns what you say (that you value employees and their health) with what you do (promote good health on a daily basis). That's what creates a strong culture, and strong cultures in turn have a strong influence on people's behavior -  ultimately driving the business outcomes you seek in a more powerful and sustainable manner.

So I ask again, why do you promote wellness: for business or for your people? For sure it can be for business, but regardless of which of the two is your underlying motivation, there's only one way to successfully promote it to employees - and that's on the wings of personal value.     

I'm sharing this post because I recently presented a well-received conference session in Boston on how to market wellness to the greater work population. For the past decade, HBD has been working with employers to create innovative health promotion programs which are integrated into the natural work flow. Our programs maintain voluntary, monthly engagement of over 80% of the workforces we service, without incentives. With such a captive audience, we can really work on structuring the materials to achieve significant progressive education and help people make significant gains towards personal goals. The result: high rates of sustained health improvements across the workforce. That is, excellent business outcomes by helping individuals achieve personal outcomes. For information on our industry leading approaches to population behavior change, click the "contact us" link and ask for a case study from an industry similar to yours. Andrew Stephenson, VP North America.  

Published on by Andrew Stephenson.