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  • Andrew Stephenson

Wellness Program Management Lessons from the Global Pandemic

I find closing out the year offers a wonderful opportunity for reflection and learning. What did you do differently this year that you want to make a core part of your operation moving forward? What mistakes did you make, or more importantly, what lessons can you take from those mistakes?

No person, organization, or community is perfect. But if we move through life together with an optimistic and growth-oriented mindset we can learn from mistakes and seek continual improvement.

As part of my reflection, I feel there are some poignant management lessons that can be taken from this pandemic, particularly the mismanagement that has occurred in the United States.

A goal in managing people or projects is to create trust and nurture a strong culture. People who share collective beliefs and purpose, and who feel supported by those around them, are more likely to collaborate and collectively be innovative and productive. In contrast, a lack of clear direction or purpose and inconsistent messaging results in distrust and disengagement. People become more focused on protecting their own interests as opposed to contributing to greater goals.

As we stand now, about 9 or 10 months into this pandemic, the key thing that stands out to me from a public health standpoint is the damage of mixed messaging. This, in my opinion, is one of the key lessons for anyone managing a population health promotion program.

What we have seen in some countries is an alignment between public health experts and governments, where governments defer to subject matter experts and then echo key messages or implement policies based on their recommendations. Key messages and actions are consistent. What’s the outcome? A much stronger collective impact on the population’s behavior has resulted in significantly less burden from this virus. People are engaged and there seems to be trust in the information and process.

In stark comparison, here in the U.S., we see a population that is very divided. There is distrust between the government and health authorities and a significant lack of centralized or coordinated leadership. This is ultimately a result of not simply inconsistent messaging, but outright contradictory and misleading messaging. The politicization of the pandemic created a significant lack of clarity in purpose, and sadly, the results have been devastating.

This is by no means supposed to be a political discussion – in fact, I try hard to stay out of politics. But it does highlight a really important lesson, one that we’ve come across in real organizations when it comes to people management and management of population health, safety, and wellbeing programs.

Several years ago, I was delivering an ergonomics program for a transportation group. While showing an employee a safer way to perform one his work tasks, he shared his sense of frustration with me, indicating that while he appreciated what I was trying to teach him, he ultimately felt the program was for show and that he believed his management really didn’t care about his personal wellbeing. When I asked why he felt that way, he provided a number of excellent examples of clear inconsistencies between the organizations’ messaging and their operational expectations. On one hand, they would tell employees that safety was a priority and that they wanted everyone to actively assess workplace hazards and take their time to perform jobs safely. Yet at the same time, they were exerting significant time pressure and had productivity-based incentives, essentially promoting and rewarding rushed (and in this case riskier) work behavior. There was a contradiction between messages from different leadership groups and it led to distrust and disengagement.

This is not an isolated example. Many times, I have worked with organizations who say they prioritize employee health and wellbeing while seemingly simultaneously indicating otherwise through their actions and work practices. Most often it’s not out of malice, but rather an accidental misalignment between what is promised and talked about versus actions that are displayed or encouraged - like telling employees that you promote work-life balance and then sending them emails after hours or on weekends.

As we look towards a new year, employee wellbeing is fragile and in genuine need of support. The anxiety and uncertainty of 2020, the dramatic shift to remote work, and the intrusion of work into our home and family life have left many burned out. While we can be optimistic about 2021, the reality is that the initial vaccines will not immediately end the pandemic. We need to understand that the fatigue, anxiety, and many of the same challenges we’ve been faced with will continue significantly into next year.

With that, here are some ideas for learning from mistakes in 2020 and heading into 2021 with the goal of improving our management of people and our population’s health:

Reestablish your Purpose: Why are you in business? How important are your people to that mission and why is it critical for you to genuinely nurture their wellbeing? This is about more than creating a catchy tag line, the purpose should define the values you promote and embody on a daily basis. For some wellbeing programs that we manage in 2021, our theme is “Navigate Your Health”. This idea is centered on a fundamental principle that each person’s journey towards good health is different. Everyone is starting from a different point and the steps each person takes to navigate towards improving their own health are more important than the destination. It allows for people to feel supported in establishing their own goals and progressing at their own pace.

Create Consistency and Clarity in Communications: This will only work if all stakeholders agree with the purpose. Unfortunately, it’s often the part where many groups fail. Things often launch with a lot of fanfare, and then habits revert to “business as usual”. No wonder employees feel disparaged. It is really challenging to be successful when some internal groups are onboard while others don’t share the same sense of urgency or alignment with the values required to achieve the goal.

Lead by Example: People in positions of authority can exert significant social influence on those around them. Again, this is why it is critical to have all stakeholders buy-in to the purpose. Leaders should be strong advocates and consistently reflect the core values, standards, and behaviors that are desired. It’s not about reciting the mission all the time, but instead, striving to demonstrate a genuine passion and belief in the mission. It won’t help if members of leadership are routinely straying from the standards or expectations you demand from everyone else. By no means do leaders need to be perfect. In fact, being transparent and vulnerable in admitting when mistakes are made or on things they themselves are actively working on humanizes them and can build trust.

If you want your businesses and your people to thrive, you need to work hard to create a culture and environment for that to occur. Tokenistic wellness programs will not build loyalty and engagement and they will not significantly improve your group’s health or health behaviors. Programs that are more genuinely aligned with operational values and supported by leadership will be far more credible and ultimately be more successful with enhancing your employee health and their employee experience.

HBD manages total population health promotion programs that maintain the wellness industry’s highest levels of sustained, non-incentive driven engagement, and the industry’s highest measured total population health outcomes. To learn more about our programs or have us review your existing programs, please contact us.


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