03 May Five Pitfalls to Corporate Wellness Programs to Avoid
Although there’s been some debate about whether workplace health promotion programs, more commonly known as wellness programs, work, there still companies exerting their best efforts to develop innovative programs to suit the wellness need of their teams. Asking if CWPOs work is similar to asking whether reviews, training programs, employee assistance services, or other company initiatives are effective for both worker performance and the bottom line. The honest answer is that some are successful while others fail. And most of the time this comes down to how they’re designed and executed. So how do you create an evidence-based health promotion program that does work? And what can employers do to avoid common pitfalls that lead to ineffective and, in worse case scenarios, harmful initiatives?
To tackle these questions, the Transamerica Center for Health Studies and the Institute for Health and Productivity Studies at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health prepared a report, “From Evidence to Practice: Workplace Wellness that Works.” It offers practical advice to employers, large and small, based on the latest research on workplace programs, expert advice from practitioners, and candid interviews with business leaders. One of the biggest lessons we learned in the process of creating the report is one-time events masquerading as health promotion programs – that is, activities not integrated into a comprehensive workplace health promotion strategy – are likely to fail. And there are five common ways these solitary initiatives tend to pop up in companies.
Only administering health risk assessments.
Health assessments typically involve asking employees questions about modifiable risks, such as smoking behavior, physical inactivity, poor diet, and high-stress levels. Oftentimes, these surveys are coupled with biometric screenings of blood pressure, cholesterol, height/weight, and blood glucose levels. But providing feedback reports that remind employees that smoking, not exercising, or being overweight is unhealthy does not motivate change unless workers are given the tools and resources to actually change and track their behaviors. Undoing decades of poor health habits won’t be achieved by asking employees to complete a 15-minute questionnaire. And for otherwise healthy employees, frequent biometric screening is often unnecessary, and from a clinical standpoint may do more harm than good because follow-up treatments can be unnecessary and costly.
Paying people to change their habits.
While financial incentive programs are popular, they may not achieve long-term behavior change; instead, they may lead to resentment and even rebellion among workers. This is because many traditional incentive programs are grounded on the assumption that people will behave in certain rational ways if paid to do so. Behavioral economics tells us otherwise: Sometimes people do things that are irrational and even counter to their best interests. Individuals may not focus on long-term benefits of a given action when a short-term reward (for example smoking a cigarette, consuming a large pizza, or spending hours watching television) is more appealing. While there is some evidence that incentives work in specific instances for a small subset of workers, there is little research on the use of financial incentives in achieving long-term lifestyle changes like losing weight and not regaining it.
Sending people to your health plan’s website.
Surprisingly (at least to us), many employers think they’ve offered a wellness program if they direct their employees to a website made available by their insurer. These under-the-radar programs do not improve population health unless they are part of a broader comprehensive health promotion program that offers many ways to become engaged.
Introducing short-term campaigns.
Biggest Loser-themed events or pedometer challenges are random acts of wellness and are not very effective. In fact, they may even do more harm than good by promoting quick fixes as opposed to long-term progress.
Hiring a vendor to “fix” unhealthy employees.
Employers sometimes hire outsiders and call it a day. Worse yet, they’ll sometimes hire different vendors to address different issues – lifestyle coaches, employee assistance counselors, case and disease management vendors, nurse lines, occupational health and safety experts, workers’ compensation specialists, disability managers, organizational development consultants, you name it. When hired independently, these vendors often work in silos, which can result in overlapping or duplicated work. In addition, relying on outside entities to attend to organizational needs may not get at the root of a systematic problem.
There are a lot of misconceptions about wellness programs out there. As a result, many leaders pick and choose options fairly blindly, doing their employees and their company a disservice. In the end, you don’t necessarily need the latest wearable or a new vendor. To achieve very real health improvement at the workplace, employers should first understand what the evidence says about what works and then weave together individual health promotion programs with organizational change interventions that build on and support healthy company culture. This isn’t always easy. But the rewards can be huge, both for your company and for your employees for years to come.