Workplace wellness has been a feature of U.S. companies for several decades. Still, many observers question whether outcomes from these endeavors justify the costs. Some critics are urging a reassessment before continuing current funding levels into the future.
In 2009, 92 percent of American companies with 200 or more employees sponsored worksite wellness, according to a Rand Report for the U.S. government. A recent estimate put company spending on prevention and assorted risk reduction education (the true nature of so-called “wellness” offerings) at $40 billion annually—on a global basis. Fortune 500 company spending in America designed to reform unhealthy lifestyles and thereby reduce employee medical costs accounted for a painful share of after-tax company profits. (The estimates I’ve seen are so high I won’t include them them because I’m skeptical about their accuracy.)
However, if the estimates identified are even half accurate, or within 25 percent of reality, for that matter, it’s an enormous amount of spending—considering the evidence of modest to insignificant returns. A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that even worksite wellness programs that targeted higher risk employees “did not yield cost savings.” (Source:Kandice A. Kapinos et.al., “Does Targeting Higher Risk Employees … Yield Savings in a Workplace Wellness Program?” JAMA, Volume 57, Number 12, December 2015, p. 1257.)
Nevertheless, the Global Wellness Institute (GWI) projects “an explosion” of such expenditures in the next five to ten years. (Source: GWI, The Future of Wellness at Work.)
In an interview the other day, I asked Aussie polymath and co-author of “The Wellness Orgasm” what he thought of this situation. Always good for a creative way of looking at things, Dr. Grant Donovan offered this:
“Do reckless lifestyles, whether occasioned by insufficient education, poor cultural and social conditions and/or other factors, cost the country $2.2 trillion every year? Or, do these factors help generate another unnecessary industry (and there are many) where money can flow to a myriad of providers, who spend the money on a range of other unnecessary products and services? That is, do they just help broaden the economic base? Funeral businesses are fundamentally unnecessary but they are part of a thriving industry that adds dollars to the economy.”
What Worseness Costs Companies
Given the burden that hazardous lifestyles impose upon corporate productivity, it’s likely that companies would do one or two things of a Draconian nature, if they could get away with either: 1) make wellness mandatory; and/or 2) hire and retain only employees who fit a well-being readiness profile. The first scenario is never going to happen in America, at least not as long as we remain a democracy rather than an Orwellian police state.
The second has possibilities, if structured in a creative manner, introduced little by little over time with buy-in by the employees and done fairly in a manner that is vetted and understood by stakeholders, including employees.
Reckless lifestyles, whether occasioned by insufficient education, poor cultural and social conditions or other factors, cost the country $2.2 trillion annually. However, worksite prevention and risk reduction, billed as worksite wellness, are sideshow endeavors; indirect attempts to reform workers who are in fact ill prepared to make, never mind sustain, lifestyle changes that improve their health status and quality. No wonder worksite wellness efforts have dim to pitch dark prospects for success.
A recent survey by GWI and Everyday Health revealed the following problems with employee productivity:
- 87 percent of employees disengaged;
- 38 percent report excessive pressure;
- Only half the work force consents to participate; of that number, only 30 percent actually do engage with such offerings.
Want to guess what percentage report that such programs have led to improvements in their health? Brace yourself—only one in ten of the 30 percent who agree to participate.
A New Model
“Programs” as currently structured are not working, as the above findings suggest. The GWI and other organizations supportive of worksite wellness are seeking new approaches to accomplish the same end—a healthier workforce. This means more than controlling problem areas—it entails improved life quality that also happens to foster higher organizational productivity, in part owing to dramatically lower medical costs.
In a better model, employers would focus on finding workers with desired personality qualities. This means candidates with profiles that evidence ahigh value for quality of life choice patterns. Attention would also be given to retaining such staffers. Among the qualities of such people would be intrinsic motivation, strong tendencies toward personal responsibility for health, high energy levels, creativity, intuition, empathy and related factors associated with REAL wellness mindsets.
Well Being Readiness Profile (WBRP).
Since the advent of worksite wellness in the early 80’s, organizations have employed a variety of assessment tools to collect medical data on employees for benchmarking purposes. Nearly all worksite wellness consultants and companies that provide services and materials to aide organizations in wellness programming utilize a range of inventories that facilitate and guide wellness programming. The menu on offer consists of a mixture of culture audits, job satisfaction surveys, risk assessment inventories and the like. These results have provided a rough sketch of workers attitudes and habits. The profiles of an aggregate nature provide managers with some sense of the degree to which employee lifestyles can affect an organizations chances of containing medical insurance costs. To a lesser degree, they are assumed to be beneficial in somewhat increasing productivity and perhaps other measures of consequence to institutional success over time. This last point is widely debated.
However, existing measures do not provide insight on the extent to which an organization could readily transition from a normal state of health status mediocrity to a REAL wellness worksite environment. The extent that the work setting encourages or discourages sound health practices can not be obtained from data about worker health risks or even health status measures. Instead, a company’s readiness for a well being working environment invites a different approach or analytical focus, one that trains attention on the quality of organizational conversations. It is the conversations that take place amongst the work force that either supports or detracts from positive choices made throughout normal working days.
Understanding the nature of conversations that affect well being is the purpose of a new tool being developed by the co-authors of “Wellness Orgasms: The Fun Way to Live Well and Die Healthy, Drs.” Grant Donovan and myself. It will be called the “Well Being Readiness Profile” (WBRP).
The Well Being Readiness Profile (WBRP) is a tool undergoing testing that will assess employee norms or, more specifically, conversational metrics. It will be supplemented with observational data gathered about everyday worksite attitudes, lifestyle customs and expectations, cultures and preferences. The resulting profile will reflect work force readiness for well being and a high quality of life - and the extent that the organization’s policies and traditions supports such positive outcomes. A continuum will be mapped depicting work force well being levels from a REAL wellness model perspective. The continuum will show percentages of employees arrayed from not-so-well at one end, to a strong propensity for well being and quality of life on the other - as well as percentage levels between the polar extremes.
The WBRP will enable a report that expresses the likelihood of employees being guided to develop metrics that favor exuberant choices, even if most are currently mired in poor lifestyle-quality habit patterns and work-life expectations. An underlying assumption, based on the evidence from perception mapping and related conversational assessments, is that a WBRP will enable changes in everyday personal and professional decisions that support desired outcomes, including lowered organizational costs and greater productivity.
In addition to the profile, the analysis and discussion with all staffing levels of the organization will provide feedback from employee work teams. This will be done to enable a plan document for company well being enrichment. This document will guide company policy decisions and promote more effective employee selection, retention and advancement consistent with desired metrics for employee well being.
Conversations and Wellness
For better or worse, conversations as staff members go about the workday reflect their levels of interest, awareness, concern and readiness to make choices of a positive or negative nature. These patterns of thought should be recognized, understood and used as benchmarks to chart the success of initiatives intended to boost the quality of organizational work life.
Organizations are much affected by the quality of employee expectations, assumptions and behaviors that affect their motivation, ambitions and other factors that influence their health and well being.
The WBRP will be designed to facilitate widespread buy-in by employees of the kind of day-to-day choices that enable conversations reflecting a healthy workforce and the benefits associated with such.
Personal behavior change is difficult to impossible for vast numbers ofpeople. Decades of worksite wellness programming has shown limited progress, notwithstanding the investment of tens of millions of dollars and uncounted time diverted from the conduct of actual business. The ratio of “blame” versus solutions-focused conversations with self and others is usually found to be less than constructive. This reflects a need to encourage positive speaking patterns (memetics) about health and life quality issues. Such conversations can affect the speaker and others, in positive ways. The opposite also applies - communications within a group that dwell on health woes and low exuberance expectations are mentally contagious and lower well being levels.
Just being exposed to irrational thought patterns, unhappy people, group setting that are sedentary with hazardous dining norms and low expectations of personal freedoms will, in just a few weeks, decrease quality of life experiences for the previously highly well individual.
Organizations should pay attention to conversational patterns, particularly those that reflect expectations for and appreciation of positive WB - or the negative alternative - which of course is far more common.
Negativity is mapped into most brains operating at worksites. Negative expectations or patterns that reinforce worseness, are in operations all day long. We believe effective interventions in such patterns will lead to better outcomes for all.
Training a few people in conversation patterns of a well being nature and then having these people interact with others in the work force will boost organizational quality of life attitudes and choices.
Templates can and will be shaped to facilitate trained staff personnel to blend into work groups, such as staff meetings, in order to identify the memetic pattern of the group. An analysis of the patterns will show where concentrated efforts at well being conversations can enable more amendable norms.
Conversations reflect the extent of the workforce’s level of well being readiness. Fortunately, readiness levels are amenable to change. These readiness levels can be changed by one person or one work group at a time, in an evolutionary manner.
This is best done by designed, concentrated efforts, with important roles for CEOs and other leaders, such as line managers, as well as natural change agents. Certain sections of any organization, particularly human resources, have to play a role in shaping conversations in a well being direction.
The WB work must be customized. Facilitators need to actively listen to people, note what they think, learn about their issues and problems and ask questions that gather needed info on key areas of well being.
“The future lies ahead,” as Parkinson once noted. We will keep you apprised of developments with the WBRP as it develops.
Be well, pay attention to the conversations you hear and how you contribute to them and look on the bright side of life. Keep searching for the latter, despite endless reasons to find such an outlook Panglossian in the extreme.