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Realistic Expectations of a Worksite Well-being Program

April 08 2015 / by advwellness

As I sat across the table with one of our clients during our
annual review and planning session for their expect_resultsworksite wellbeing (wellness) program, I observed concerned, contemplative faces examining the data before them. One team member looked up and said to me, “I am worried that we haven’t made any significant changes in the BMI category. We’ve been at this for nearly five years and this still hasn’t really changed.” As tough as it was to hear, he was right. The numbers were not budging.  While we had seen changes in other metrics, there had been very little change in the BMI biometric over five years.

The unspoken question was hanging in the air, “Is it possible this worksite wellness program isn’t working?”  Followed by, “Is it even worth the money and time we’re pouring into it?”

Fortunately, it didn’t take much discussion before it was agreed by all parties that positive changes, even ones not yet measurable in a Well-being Assessment, were happening in the employee population and it wasn’t time to throw in the towel just yet. Everyone acknowledged that it is a long-term investment, but this moment did highlight an important question about well-being programs: how long will it be until we see significant changes in health risk factors across a population?

Having realistic expectations when you embark on a worksite wellbeing program can help to not only manage these moments, but can also help you craft an effective plan for your company. Here are three key concepts you should always have in mind.

 1. Focus on long-term, not short term

Most worksite wellbeing programs stem from the desire of a company to save money on health insurance by improving the health of their employees.

The concept appears very cut and dry. You offer programs to help employees become healthier. The employees successfully participate in said programs and experience improvements in health. The company saves money. It’s such a simplistic, obvious concept on paper; you might imagine the company would see an immediate return on investment. Unfortunately, in the real world, behavior change does not happen so quickly, or so clinically.

As a health coach and expert in behavior change, my honest, cut and dry answer to, “How long until we see a company-wide change in biometrics?” is, “A long time.” If you want my more detailed answer, it is, “Depending on the focus of the well-being programming, a really long time. Even with a great program you’re looking at three to five years, perhaps even more until you see statistically significant biometric changes over a large population.”  For a company investing major resources in a program, this may seem disappointing if the initial expectation was to see immediate change. Does this mean that well-being programs aren’t worth it? Absolutely not! When you set the right expectations for your well-being program, the value on your investment is without question.

A quality wellbeing program requires both financial and personnel resources to be invested in a long-term, wide spread commitment to wellbeing from all members of the organization, especially those in leadership positions.  Considering this, it was no wonder our client was feeling frustrated that their substantial investment didn’t appear to be paying off, but they were able to move past that quickly once they remembered what their own CFO often said “that well-being is a marathon, not a sprint”. Prepare yourself for this from the start as you make the decision to invest your company’s money in a wellbeing program.

So, now that you know you’ve made a long-term commitment to well-being, what should you focus on as signs of success, if not biomarkers? What should the expectations be?

2. Focus on multiple measures, not just health care costs

It is important to have measures outside of biomarkers built in to your well-being program that will signal to you that you are providing worth-while programming for your employees.

“If your only reason is to cut healthcare costs, you won’t get employee buy in and support because there’s nothing motivating for anyone other than senior management.” Terry Heimes, CFO at Nelnet 

Well-being programming should feel like a benefit to your employees. When measuring your program’s efficacy, of course you will be looking at changes in health risk factors, but also, look at participation rates in your wellbeing programs, start paying attention to employee turnover rates, and explore changes in absenteeism across the population. While harder to measure, look at efficiency, efficacy, and engagement in daily work practices. After all, it is possible to be at work but not really “present” or engaged in work due to sickness, stress, or feelings of discontent. 

Quality well-being programming has the potential to affect change in all of these areas, often much more quickly than in biometrics. There are moral benefits to improving turnover rates, absenteeism and efficiency, but there are also significant financial benefits.

But what constitutes “quality well-being programming?” Let us turn to expectation number three.

3. Focus on culture

As scientists and researchers continue to look at the health-related behaviors of communities of people, there is increasing evidence that good health occurs in clusters, as does poor health. This indicates that there is a significant connection between culture and healthy behaviors. The heart of worksite well-being programming should be driving a company culture that supports and values healthy behaviors for all members.

Going back to our client at the beginning of the story, to them, culture quite simply means, “The way we do things.” So how is your company doing things, from a well-being standpoint?

The word “well-being” encompasses so much more than biometrics or even just physical health. Well-being is also about balance. It signifies quality of life and a sense of belonging. Having a healthy sense of well-being means feeling like you contribute to your community or workplace in a meaningful and confidence building way. Well-being means having a sense of purpose.  So again, ask yourself, how do we do these things at my company?

View your worksite well-being program as an opportunity to provide a benefit to your employees that will improve their quality of life and their sense of balance. Integrate this value of wellbeing into your company’s values.  In fact, the most important step you can take in crafting excellent worksite well-being programming is to examine policies and cultural norms in the workplace that help or hinder well-being.

Tracking culture may seem tricky, but start the process of “How do we do things?” by asking important questions of your leaders around the values of well-being. Are you preaching balance through well-being programming yet harboring a culture of intense pressure to keep imbalanced work hours? Do your leaders practice and model balance? Do you provide paid time to complete well-being activities, thus emphasizing its importance?

On a broader scale, take note and document when employees engage in well-being activities outside of those incentivized by your well-being program. Start asking and tracking answers to questions about employee engagement within the company, observe the quality of communication and relationships within the company, observe the ways teams interact, note their communication styles. Read additional blogs on workplace culture.

Stay the course. 
Over time you will see change, and it will be worth it, financially, but also on a much deeper and more meaningful level than return on investment. You will feel an incredible value on investment.

Remember: “The number one benefit you can give an employee is good health.”
Jim Goodnight, Founder and CEO of SAS

 Laura Ingalls, BFA, CPT, CHHC

Topics: Wellbeing

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