This week is a good representation for several things that are wrong with many people’s attitude towards health and the culture being created around corporate wellness. Today (Wednesday June 4th) is National Running Day, and Friday (June 6th) is National Doughnut Day; mirroring the short-term activity based approach to wellness and the “chore for reward” type expectations which are being cemented in many corporate health strategies.
National Running Day is a popular day at HBD because, well, many of us are regular runners and we love an excuse to take a break for a run in the sun! To us it's not specifically about running, it’s about getting outside and enjoying the warmer weather while promoting and acknowledging the countless benefits of regular exercise. Whether you’re a runner or not, we encourage you to walk, waltz, skip or do whatever makes you happy – as long as you’re moving!
If you exercise today we commend you. While you are out there getting healthier, happier, and smarter, (yes, there’s significant research to back up all of those claims), 80% of your colleagues are getting sicker, sadder, and slower (and yes, unfortunately there are also studies that link sedentary lifestyles to all of those nasty pitfalls).
Where do the doughnuts come in? Ever convinced yourself you’ve earned a doughnut because you worked out? If not a doughnut, how about a beer, a burger, a cupcake, or an ice-cream? I totally support a balanced lifestyle, and that includes some periodic yummy treats; but the notion that I get “a” for doing “b” sets a shaky and unsustainable precedent. Anyone who’s looked into how to motivate people (for some really interesting insight google the TED Talk by Dan Pink), knows that incentives are a short-term solution. To be effective, you really need to tap into people's interests and values. Tying points, challenges, and incentives to health behaviors undermines their true value and turns wellness into a commodity. Establishing an expectation that a healthy behavior deserves a tangible reward feeds the concept that healthy behaviors are unpleasant, or a “chore”. Because of this, corporate wellness programs are being built on activities to the point where "Wellness Wednesday" means little more to your employees than "Pizza Thursday" or "Hawaiian Shirt Friday".
It is far more sustainable to help individuals understand their personal values and then link them to a foundation of good health. Give people an inherent drive to look after themselves rather than trying to create an artificial reward. Whether it’s being fit enough to play with grandchildren, healthy enough to rock a bikini at the beach, or simply a balanced lifestyle to boost energy and improve sleep quality: it’s not that people aren’t interested in being healthy, it’s that they are being educated the wrong way.
Companies that want to reap the benefits of a healthier, safer, more engaged, and more productive workforce should build routine health promotion into their workflow. Engage the work population by integrating wellness into routine operations and focus on educating employees on the “how and whys” of being healthy rather than forcing them into a limited selection of activities. People are unique, and you’ll never be able to have enough activities or “challenges” to appeal to everyone’s individual needs or interests; so stop trying. Instead focus on the education and tools that will empower employees to realize their personal motivation and develop skills to fit healthy behaviors into their own lives.
This is not an unrealistic idealism. HBD is consistently successful in engaging whole populations in integrated programs that successfully, and sustainably help employees improve health behaviors. We don’t do it by dangling a doughnut at the finish line; we do it through meaningful and progressive education that enables people to change their lives for the better.