Jason Lauritsen - Crushing talent dogma to free human potential

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Why Wellness Matters

I have a confession to make.  I used to think that corporate wellness programs were ridiculous.  I’d hear about weight watchers programs and health fairs and, frankly, it felt like the typical busywork kind of stuff HR departments are known for.  Then, I went to work for an organization that invests heavily in wellness and has for 15 years and I found out that I was wrong.

As I’ve studied wellness and the impact that well executed wellness programs can have on an organization, I’ve changed my tune.  I have become a wellness champion.  I believe in wellness programs within organizations and I think that every organization should be investing in it.  It seems so obvious to me that there is benefit to having a wellness program that it’s hard to understand why companies wouldn’t embrace them, particularly in today’s world of health care expenses that continue to spiral out of control.

The general argument against corporate wellness is that companies have no business mandating anything to do with employee health.  It is argued that requiring employees to get in better shape or care for their general health and well being better is an intrusion of their privacy.  I’ve this coming from some pretty smart HR pros and I find this objection to wellness to be silly and short-sighted.  The fact is, we mandate things to employees every day.  We tell them how to dress.  We give them standards for their hygeine.  We require them to attend training classes.  We give expectations on how to execute their job. We tell when they can and can’t take personal phone calls.  We tell them what they can and can’t say to who and when.  And we do all of this because the specific behaviors that employees chose relative to these issues has direct financial impact on the organization.

But, when it comes to wellness, we get squeamish about setting the same kind of standards despite the fact that employer paid health insurance benefits has become the second largest expense line item for many companies behind salary.  And the research tells us that 75% of healthcare expenses in America come from chronic diseases that are largely preventable through behavior modification.  So, to extrapolate, it can be assumed also that approximately 75% of our health insurance expense at the organization level is being caused by the behaviors of our employees and that if they changed these behaviors, there could be a dramatic decrease in healthcare expenses for the employee and the organization. This doesn’t even take into consideration that people are doing real damage to themselves and their families through these unhealthy choices.

With this much at stake, why wouldn’t a responsible organization get invested in wellness?  It almost feels like an imperative to create healthy organizations that proactively help employees make healthier decisions.  In fact, if we are willing to dictate how employees dress when their’s so little at stake, why wouldn’t we dictate what they eat or how much they exercise when there’s so much at stake?

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  1. Chris Ferdinandi - Renegade HR

    Jason,

    I actually disagree with this post on two points:

    1. Saying, "We mandate how people dress, so why not being healthy?" is a weak argument to me in that it assumes the former mandate is ok. I'd argue that we shouldn't be mandating how people dress either.

    2. I think wellness programs are stupid, but not because of privacy issues or anything like that. As you noted, health is important.

    My issue is that I don't think these programs are effective at changing behavior. It's like throwing money out the window.

    Most people who care about being healthy are doing things about it whether you mandate they do so or not. And most people who don't care won't change their behavior (long term), even if you have a wellness program.

    The data shows that many of these programs, incentives and such do a great job of changing behavior short-term, but after the introductory period, behavior slips back to pre-program levels (or worse!).

    Why spend money on something that doesn't work?

    To really sustain behavior like this, people need to be internally motivated to do it, and I would argue that a wellness program does not produce the kind of behaviors you want (long term).

    Great post, though, in that it forced me to think and articulate my position on something, so thanks for that!

    Cheers!

    Chris

  2. Jason Lauritsen

    @Chris Thanks for making your points here. This is another common argument I've heard frequently from within HR. You make some interesting points, most of which I disagree with.

    To your first point, whether or not you like or agree with dress codes, they are necessary in many cases. If you have employees who interact with customers, dress codes may be critical. It is in those situations where the impressions our employees make could make or break a sale or relationship. This has direct impact on the bottom line. So, I'd say that it would be irresponsible for a company not to mandate a dress code. Certainly, there may be other situations where a dress code might not be required. The bigger point is that where specific employee behavior has a direct impact on the financial outcomes of the company, it's reasonable and expected that an organization take steps to manage that behavior. Employee health is having enormous impact on our company's bottom lines (increasing by the day) and we can't wait on the sidelines.

    To your second point, I would agree that many of the approaches that have been historically taken in corporate wellness programs have been ineffective. That doesn't invalidate the concept and practice of wellness or suggest that a company shouldn't strive to find better and more effective ways to execute on the concepts. If we held all HR practices to the same standards you outline above, we'd have to dump a lot of our practices. Use recruiting as an example. If your recruiting approach wasn't yielding results over a period of time, you wouldn't abandon recruiting. Recruiting is obviously too important to quit. Instead, you'd go back to the drawing board and find a better way to recruit. Such is situation with wellness.

    The only way to ultimately beat the healthcare system and the rising cost of healthcare is to reduce our reliance on the system by becoming healthier. Most people aren't able to do that on their own and we, as employers, have too much at stake to not become part of the solution.

    Thanks for giving me the opportunity to clarify these points. Productive debate is all too often lacking in HR.

  3. Chris Ferdinandi - Renegade HR

    Jason,

    Thanks for the response. You said:

    "If you have employees who interact with customers, dress codes may be critical. It is in those situations where the impressions our employees make could make or break a sale or relationship. This has direct impact on the bottom line. So, I'd say that it would be irresponsible for a company not to mandate a dress code."

    My perspective on dress codes is consistently that if you hire adults and treat them that way, they're unnecessary. Dress codes are for the lowest common denominator. The idiots who don't know how to dress appropriately in front of clients.

    They shouldn't be working for you, anyways.

    And recruiting and wellness aren't really comparable functions. There intrinsic motivation forces I described around being healthy don't really apply to recruiting in the same way.

    A recruiter may want to do a great job hiring but not have the right skills or tools to do so. I'm not sure you can say the same thing for being healthy.

    Does anyone really not know that eating good food and exercise are the keys to health? It's not really complicated. I'm not saying it's easy, but it's not complicated either.

    So beyond making it easy for people to exercise (either through an onsite gym or subsidized membership), and providing healthy food in your cafeteria, I think all the "extras" are by and large ineffective.

    Because again, people who REALLY want to be healthy are already doing the right things, and those who don't REALLY care aren't.

  4. Jason Lauritsen

    @Chris – Thanks for the debate here. I think this is a healthy discussion that should be taking place within HR. However, my last comment on the topic is that regardless of whether we agree with the corporate wellness approach or not, the push is coming for it. So, it's important that we diligently study what's going on in this field to sort out what does work from what doesn't because we are likely all going to be asked to implement something soon if you haven't already.

Jason Lauritsen