Start with the End in Mind

I love tennis. It can be a challenge for me to focus on work in early September, as the U.S. Tennis Open is "conveniently" streamed live online for a full two weeks. I've been playing tennis as long as I can remember, and as a result, I'm decent. I'm no super star, but I can hold my own, grind out victories and certainly be competitive against most at my local club.

My wife on the other hand, briefly tried tennis as a kid and then promptly left her racquet to collect cobwebs in the basement, instead favoring a softball bat and soccer boots. While she enjoyed those team sports as a teen, she found them difficult to maintain into adulthood. The beauty I find in tennis is that it's an activity you can enjoy forever (there are 80 and 90 year olds who play every day at my local park!).

My wife and I now have our first 6 month old baby. As my wife looked to get back into regular exercise post-pregnancy, she felt an urge to try something that could, in the future, become a family activity. So at the age of 33, she took up tennis lessons.

My wife is quite competitive and she likes to do things well. Already she has been a little frustrated that she can't beat me yet. Never the less, she's motivated to continue with lessons in order to create the opportunity for enjoying a family activity in the future, and instilling the joy of active recreation that our son may learn to enjoy for a lifetime.

I often wish business leaders or wellness managers could have that same vision. In the same way it's unrealistic to master a sport in a couple of lessons, you shouldn't expect to change deeply engrained health behaviors, or even cause a significant shift in a company's culture overnight. It takes time. It takes a strong, structured strategy which needs to be consistently applied, reinforced and refined.

I'm not saying you can't get results in the short term, but the short term results should not be the intention of the program. If they are, you become trapped in a cycle of short term loops in which you attack employee health and wellbeing as a series of isolated campaigns - an approach that quickly wears thin on the patience of employees.

To have the most dramatic and sustainable positive influence on employees and your company as a whole, health promotion strategies should be about planning with the end in mind. Don't focus on the most immediate "wellness challenge." Don't focus on how much of an incentive you need to get some quick wins. What you should focus on is developing a sustainable program which can be built into your organizational workflow in order to repeatedly, consistently, and routinely engage your employee population. There's an abundance of research into what drives inherent motivation, or how achieving progressive small wins can help boost an individual's confidence and belief to tackle more challenging goals and habit change - as long as those small wins are progressive and done with the vision of moving towards those greater changes.  

Just as my wife continues to grind away at her tennis drills with the vision of being able to enjoy tennis at a social level, workplace programs should start with the end in mind. Aim to establish consistent and routine engagement which can help put people on a pathway to more significant and sustainable long term change. If done well, you will still get significant short term shifts and short term outcomes, but they will occur on the way to so much more as opposed to being the only gains you will get.  

So while I may be a little hard to get hold of until after the U.S. Open finals, if you are interested in taking workplace health initiatives to the next strategic level - that is, to build a comprehensive program which gains and sustains the engagement of your whole population - then I'd be happy to meet you in the park and discuss your unique challenges over a game of tennis.  

Published on by Andrew Stephenson.