Corporate wellness, corporate culture, engagement, and employee productivity have become buzz words in the media and around organizations worldwide recently. I’ve been fortunate to see this issue from a few different vantage points and I want to preface this article by acknowledging that I still have more questions than answers on the subject and how best to address it.
That said, what I’ve seen from the “wellness” industry offers more frustration and confusion then inspiration and direction. To me, there are three entities that need to be addressed and must work together to make the kind of impact needed to get people’s attention and really make substantial change. This list is not in order of importance and I consider them interdependent rather than independent of each other. If all three aren’t working together and in the same direction the best of intentions will inevitably get derailed.
TO THE EMPLOYER
Wellness programs can’t be a decree from the top down to get your employees’ butts in gear and in shape in an effort to lower your health care costs. Coercion doesn’t work the way we think it does. Neither does a condescending pat of the head that says “Um, yeah, so we’re giving you personal training sessions and gym memberships because we care. Oh, and by the way, I’m going to take money out of your pocket if you don’t use it and get in shape, mmkay.” (Insert Office Space, Bill Lumbergh here). This doesn’t mean you care about your employees and they see right through these tactics. It’s kind of like getting your spouse personal training sessions and an “Eating Light” cookbook and expecting a big hug and warm thank you. What kind of signal do you think it sends? Jerk.
As the company, ask yourself; what benefit are you really looking for from a wellness program? Big-picture, what’s the ultimate goal here? What problem are you really trying to solve? Is your current approach working? Commanding your employees to be healthier doesn’t work and a stand-alone “wellness program” will only be a blip on the radar. True “corporate wellness” starts with the top brass in your company deciding that it makes good business sense to cultivate a workplace that puts a premium on helping employees perform at their best. A piece of that is offering programs that address the physical health of your employees, but only a piece. Other components must address the emotional, mental, core values and financial aspects of your employees’ worlds. I don’t mean that it’s the company’s obligation to ensure the health of each of these areas for people, but investing in and supporting these areas within your organization makes people-sense and will go a long way toward lower insurance premiums and reduce the number of days lost to health issues but more importantly, it will lead to lower turnover and greater productivity.
What you do as an organization will go much farther in shaping the culture of your business than what you say. People are really good at following the leader and the business world is no exception. If you (as leaders in your organization) set a crappy example, your people will follow… and then blame you for the way you treat them… and based on your actions, they’re right. Don’t forget that. You’re employees are part of your business whether you like it or not. The better they are at their jobs, the more value they feel and the more closely they connect to what they’re doing the more they produce, your bottom line goes up and insurance costs go down.
TO THE EMPLOYEE
Let me just get this out of the way first: I’ve worked with companies all over the world and there are two common themes, consistent across the board- everyone is busy and everyone is stressed. What I’m about to say about employees, I mean with as much love, empathy and compassion as I can possibly muster. Suck it up and deal with it. Everyone is busy and everyone has stress. Get over it. You’re not going to get less busy, stress is part of being an adult and there is such a thing as personal accountability. It’s no one’s job but yours to make sure you are taking care of number one.
I know that hurt a little. That was the intention. I’ve seen too many people who are all too happy to play the part of the overworked, overstressed, I-don’t-get-to-have-a-life-because-I-work-every-second-of-every-day martyr and if this is your mindset nothing’s going to change until you change your tune. Your situation is what you’ve allowed it to be and it’s up to you to make the best of it or it will crush you no matter what your company tries to do for you.
The most important thing an employee can do is understand and accept the reality of the situation they’re currently in and then do something to improve it. You’ll never survive by wishing for the next holiday or vacation, surviving until the weekend or “getting through” until this big project is over. You signed up for the job you have. Certainly you knew there would be work to do and expectations to meet. Much of the work pressure we feel is part of an internal story we tell ourselves about what it means to be a “good worker bee.” Busy and productive aren’t the same thing. Don’t forget that. No one cares how busy you are but they’ll notice what you produce and they’ll remember what your attitude was, good or bad.
Your job is to find ways to flourish through the challenges and use stress as a catalyst for growth. Part of that is setting boundaries and making sure you’re living a life outside of work; have hobbies, interact with friends, be involved with community activities, travel, take vacation, etc. Even if the company you work for doesn’t give a crap about you during work hours, if you take advantage of your free time, life (work life and personal life) will be much more enjoyable.
TO THE WELLNESS COMPANIES… AND HEALTH PROFESSIONALS IN GENERAL
I’m passionate about this group and I hold them to a higher standard because I’m one of them and we must do better. We have a tendency to go in, guns blazin’, with a “biggest loser program” here, a “step challenge” there and follow those up with the all-encompassing “drink more water” or “get more sleep” finisher and ultimately look like a side show act that employees will chuckle about down the road on their way to burnout, disengagement and high cholesterol.
There are two critical pieces every trainer or wellness company must have in order to move people and companies from unhealthy to healthy. First, we must have a well-rounded and extensive comprehension of the subject matter we are teaching/implementing, both from an academic/research standpoint and from a practical application standpoint. Second, we must be able to disregard all of our subject matter knowledge, practical application bias and personal interest in order to understand and meet people or companies where they’re at. These two things must be in sync in order to truly facilitate change. The process itself shouldn’t look much different for an organization than it does for a person but we can’t come at a complex issue like corporate wellness with just a personal trainer hat on. If we’re serious about helping organizations change we must learn more about the business world we’re operating in and speak their language.
Our first responsibility to the people and organizations we work with is not to be the fitness and nutrition expert and it’s not to have all the answers. It’s to be an expert listener. I know that gives you flashbacks of kindergarten but in my experience very few of us got the point then, so I’m repeating it now. I can’t help a client until I shut up and listen to what their goals are, what their obstacles are, what they’ve tried in the past and most importantly, understand their WHY. We must fight our initial instinct to immediately offer solutions and instead, listen, ask question, listen some more and then ask more questions. If our intention is to parade in, word vomit all the great stuff we know, site this research and that research in an effort to show how smart we are and be the conquering hero we’re lost before we’ve started. Listen first.
Our second job is to provide guidance to the organization and help them hash out what the real goal is as it relates to corporate wellness. It’s our job to communicate the importance addressing employee wellness with a multi-dimensional (physical, emotional, mental, values based, financial, etc.) approach and help them connect the dots between wellness, corporate environment/culture, productivity and bottom line. Only then can we begin to work with an organization to help them develop a plan that best meets the needs of the employees and the business. The employees and the business is important to understand here. If we can’t speak to the benefits for the business (the bottom line) we’ll never get complete buy in from key influencers at the top. A program that doesn’t work with influencers will never be fully embraced by the organization and doesn’t have a chance of making an impact.
Finally, when it comes time to take action on the plan we’ve laid out with the organization, we must implement strategies that focus on and cultivate the behaviors that will lead to the short-term and long-term changes we want to see in the company and its people.
Ultimately, if the approached to corporate wellness isn’t to achieve a win-win (company and employee), no one will benefit. Companies must begin to reshape their corporate environment to one that lowers the bar for healthy behaviors and shift to a culture where wellness an underlying theme, woven into the fabric of the business. Employees have to take ownership of their overall wellbeing and take advantage when companies offer them opportunities to grow and develop. Wellness companies must bridge the gap between the two. We are the trusted adviser, connecting the company to their employees in a way that’s genuine, with an eye on the business while simultaneously connecting the employees to the company in a way that makes them want to give back by doing the best work they’re capable of.