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Published on : January 15, 2014

Why Some Wellness Programs Work and Others Don’t: Commonalities of Successes and Failures in Worksite Wellness Programs

Why Some Wellness Programs Work and Others Don’t: Commonalities of Successes and Failures in Worksite Wellness Programs

In the spirit of saving the best for last, let us start our conversation by painting a picture. Imagine this: you walk into your company’s lunchroom and the fluorescent lighting sets off a dismal shade of grayish yellow in the air around you. You yawn as you walk towards the food line, and in a slouched posture, you begin to examine what is on the menu. You see the usual culprits - chips, fries, pasta salad, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, more pasta, green beans soaked in who knows what and for how long, and then finally dessert - ice cream, brownies and cookies! You take your plate and start to load it up with all the goodies and begin to walk back to the 1980’s table and chair set with chipped paint on the edges. Just then, you hear a voice over the loud speaker. The voice is your Human Resources director reminding you that during your lunch breaks an educational video will be playing to support your company’s new corporate wellness program. A few moments later, the Human Resources manager walks in pushing the rollaway TV cart and inserts a VHS tape. She then proceeds to tell those in the cafeteria that this educational video will demonstrate how to properly burn fat and shed the pounds! The video starts and Richard Simmons’, “Sweating to the 80’s,” starts to play.

Now, this illustration may be a bit exaggerated as many employers have updated facilities, better food items, better resources and newer technologies that they utilize; however, I still find it fascinating when I walk into an employer’s wellness meeting or lunchroom and there in the back of the room is a box of donuts. What I am trying to convey is that many programs are old and outdated. They contradict what they are trying to accomplish by asking their employees to do something when the company, the culture and the environment does not incentivize good behavior and healthier life choices. Many employers whom adopt wellness programs still have poor food and beverage vending machine options, smoking break areas that are easily accessible, and at the end of the day are not making it easy for their employees to choose a healthier lifestyle. Employers are making it easy to continue to do what they always have done but somehow expect a different outcome. It does not make sense.

When we consult employers about worksite wellness programs, some say, “we have tried something like that in the past but it didn’t work.” We always ask why it did not work followed up with a laundry list of questions. What we find is that there are three commonalities that destroy the wellness mission.

There is a big difference between an actual program and a tool/resource. Many employers offer tools, websites, print materials, and discounts on certain fitness memberships that can work on the right platform; however, after a few weeks, maybe months if you’re lucky, the newness wears off and the program ends due to lack of participation. Solution - if you offer tools and incentives, they need to have back up power behind them. An online site where someone logs in to view videos, search for recipes, log and track activities, analyze their own personal health progress, etc., needs to be constantly advertised and talked about at work! You must also find out what makes each and every person respond in such a way that they want to and are excited to continue to click on that smart phone application, log into that site, track their activities, and then tell their co-workers how cool are the resource or resources provided. You need people to move in one direction and gain an understanding of what gets people to move. Focus groups and data collection are great ways to gauge what makes each person tick; otherwise, people will forget about the program, become disenchanted, and stop using the tools in which your company has invested.

Manpower - It literally takes a small army to get data, design, implement, measure, track, motivate, educate, challenge, reward, redesign/configure to re-implement, and then follow through to get results! Quite honestly, this is why many smaller-sized employers have negative opinions on wellness programs. Their HR departments cannot handle all the duties necessary. Not because the HR staffs are not capable, but because they already have a workload that will not allow proper, time to manage a new project. Just as most employers outsource many things to help their organization run effectively, a wellness vendor may be a good option to achieve optimal results. When looking for vendors, be sure to look at those that can serve a niche that does not require size limits.

Wellness is a marathon, not a race. Let us face it, many people create habits over time and habits are not broken over night. Multiply breaking habits and learning new habits by every person in an organization and you will realize that, for the entire culture to transform into a healthier organization, it will take perseverance, persistence, dedication and commitment to see the program through before any company can call it a home run. Even when a company thinks that it has arrived after a few months of positive results, it will find that it is harder to maintain a program over a longer period. In the first few months after a weight loss challenge for example, people tend to fall back into the same old habits as before. Think of how many people you know who have tried some kind of diet and then gained all the weight back plus a little extra. Now, ask yourself why. Just like keeping the weight off, these things are life changes and take time. Ultimately, people will have to change their lifestyle in such a way as to stay on the right path. That path may be difficult, but it is not impossible with time! Do not expect results overnight. Remember, wellness is like running a marathon - before you get to the finish line, you would have had to run for hours and before that, you would have had to train weeks on end to prepare yourself for the big day. In wellness, the big day is everyday that you live! It is a marathon, not a race!

  1. Tools and Resources Vs. a Program
  2. No Man on Deck Vs. an Army
  3. The Tortoise verses the Hare

Now, let us look at the positive impact of worksite wellness programs. If you find a program that has eliminated the top three reasons of why a wellness programs fails, you will find a company running the most successful of wellness programs. They can work if they are designed, managed and measured properly. If you do not have dedicated staffs, then consider shopping around for wellness vendors that can become an extension of your Human Resources department, or perhaps contract a company to share the responsibilities with your HR staff. There are many affordable ways that your company can implement a program that yields major results and savings!