About eight years ago, I joined an organization that was pretty serious about workplace wellness.
Since the wellness team rolled up to me as the HR leader, I got pretty serious about learning what it was all about quickly. Most of the focus, I learned, was on improving the physical health of our employee population.
This particular organization had been investing in wellness programs for years, long before most organizations started to take it seriously. They did some really cool stuff in the name of wellness. They viewed it as a benefit to employees.
At the time I joined this organization, healthcare costs in the U.S. were really beginning to skyrocket and the cost of providing employer-sponsored health insurance had become a concern.
This triggered the wellness industry to jump into action. Suddenly, workplace wellness programs were no longer a benefit, they were a vehicle to control and reduce health insurance costs. It made sense. The healthier you are, the less healthcare you consume–at least in theory.
We sold this clear new “business case” for wellness, HARD. Our execs got on board and we got to work.
But, the promised cost containment and cost savings never really materialized. And we weren’t alone. It wasn’t that wellness wasn’t making a positive difference, it just wasn’t reducing health insurance spend.
This promise of wellness has failed. The cost savings never materialized. Wellness had bet big and lost on a business case with far too many uncontrollable variables.
Sadly, this is putting some wellness programs and wellness professionals at risk of losing funding and influence.
Now is not the time to abandon wellness. Now is the time to double down.
Work is a relationship for employees. And, at the core of a healthy relationship is feeling a sense of belonging and being care for. No other function within the organization is better positioned to help employees feel this way than wellness.
The practice of corporate wellness has evolved over the past decade. Today, instead of only being about improving physical health, it’s about improving overall feelings of well-being. Wellness is wholly focused on caring for you as an individual person.
When wellness works, it can really strengthen the relationship by making you feel like the organization cares about you beyond simply what you can do for it. If your organization provides you with the tools to get out of debt or with the skills to be a better parent, it makes a real and positive impact.
But when it fails, the relationship gets damaged. My wife still talks about a day at work well over a decade ago that is a good example. A snowstorm was getting started in the city and many of her colleagues were leaving work early to make it home before the snow got bad.
As a single mom with a young son in daycare, she had to make it across town before the daycare closes. For those who may not contend with snow regularly, when a snowstorm of any magnitude rolls into the city, a 30-minute commute can become a 90-minute commute pretty quickly. So, she asked her boss if she could leave early.
As an hourly employee, her boss not only didn’t want to let her leave early but proceeded to give her a lecture about how she needed to have a backup plan for situations like these. These words, to someone who didn’t have an easy answer for a “back up plan” were at best insensitive and at worst insulting and hurtful. As I said, my wife still feels hurt all these years later.
Learning to really care for an employee’s wellness is at the heart of creating a great work experience and a strong work relationship. But, this requires that we evolve our understanding of wellness as a practice.
Recently, the Wellness Council of America debuted a new definition of Wellness that I find really inspiring. Here is the core of their definition:
What is Wellness?
Wellness is the active pursuit to understand and fulfill your individual human needs—which allows you to reach a state where you are flourishing and able to realize your full potential in all aspects of life. Every person has wellness aspirations.
Successful workplace wellness initiatives require supporting employees in fulfilling their needs in these seven areas:
- Health – Beyond the absence of mental and physical illness, health is a feeling of strength and energy from your body and mind.
- Meaning – Feeling part of something bigger than yourself. Knowing that your work matters. Having purpose in your life.
- Safety – Knowing that you are safe from physical and psychological harm at work. Feeling secure enough to take calculated risks and show vulnerability. Free of concern about meeting basic life needs.
- Connection – Experiencing positive, trusting relationships with others. Feeling a sense of belonging, acceptance and support.
- Achievement – Feeling you have the support, resources and autonomy to achieve your goals. Succeeding at meeting your individual goals and work aspirations.
- Growth – Feeling like you are progressing in your career. Learning and being challenged to use and expand on your strengths.
- Resiliency – Viewing life with optimism. Feeling grateful and expressing appreciation. Feeling validated and encouraged.
You can find the full definition here.
As we wrestle with how to make our organizations and the work we do better for humans, I think it would be smart to put wellness at the center of those efforts. If we feel unwell, whether it’s from our physical health, stress from financial strain, or a lack of meaning in our life, we won’t and can’t perform at our best. The most engaging workplace in the world can’t compensate for a lack of well-being.
The heritage of management we inherited suggests that life exists outside of work and that, as employers, we need only concern ourselves with what happens “on the clock.” That may have worked in the early days of mindless factory work, but it’s no longer valid today. The wellness of our people is where it all starts. The more “well” they are, the more performance potential they have to give.
Wellness isn’t going to fix your health insurance issues, but it may go a long way towards boosting performance. Give it another look.
This week, I have the privilege of presenting a keynote at the WELCOA Summit in San Diego. If you are going to be there, drop me a note. Let’s meet up.