Why corporate wellness doesn’t work

by Aug 31, 2018

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Say whaaaa? A co-founder of a corporate wellness company says corporate wellness doesn’t work?

A quick search of “Corporate wellness doesn’t work” on Google turns up lots of articles, some by reputable sources and many by newbies trying to rock the boat. Typically expecting a defensive response from me, people in the industry often ask what I think of those “studies.”* 

My initial response is, “They’re right. Corporate wellness DOESN’T work.” And, not-so-parenthetically, I add, “… unless it’s a program done well, which it often is not.”

Most of these studies have looked at poorly designed programs, so we’re not surprised that they didn’t work. At the same time, it’s not fair (nor accurate) to claim that all corporate wellness programs are pointless based on a handful of similarly ho-hum programs. Are all smartphones bad just because a certain model died in people’s pockets? 

So, what can you do to make sure you have a program that works? The exact answer depends a lot on your specific employee population, your company culture, and your unique wellbeing goals (as well as some experimentation and constant tweaking). But we can start by addressing these nine reasons why programs often miss the bar.

Why corporate wellness fails

1. The program is boring and simplistic. Boring, one-dimensional programs don’t draw people in. With low engagement, you’ll have low success rates.

2. It’s limited to biometrics, flu shots, and a health assessment. While these may be important for establishing a baseline and discovering underlying health problems, they’re one-time activities and don’t typically drive long-term behavior change. In and of themselves, biometrics, flu shots, and health assessments do not “count” as a corporate wellness program.

3. You rely on incentives to drive engagement. Incentives may draw some into a program and encourage those who would participate anyway to continue to engage. But incentives alone don’t typically create behavior improvement; people are engaging for all the wrong reasons.

4. You don’t effectively promote the program. If people don’t know about it, they’re 100% certain NOT to engage. Messaging has to be enticing and delivered in a way that can be received by as many people as possible. Typically, several modalities are best; email, office posters, word-of-mouth, and leadership/manager meetings are just a few effective ways to promote a program.

5. You don’t have internal support. We hear a lot about how top-down buy-in is crucial to a wellness program’s success. While it’s helpful, we’ve certainly had plenty of clients whose executive teams didn’t believe in wellness, but the people running the program did. Enthusiasm from the people running and promoting the program is crucial.

6. It’s isolationistic. A social program is far more effective than one that addresses people individually. Social engagement will make a program go viral and help insert it into a company’s overall culture.

7. It isn’t relevant. It has to be customizable enough that every participant can enjoy a meaningful, relevant experience. My definition of “healthy” may not match yours, just as your definition of “fun” may not match mine. We all have unique goals, interests, abilities, and motivators … a wellness program must be able to accommodate these differences.

8. The culture isn’t consistent with the program. If the company culture is energetic and progressive, a stodgy program isn’t gonna fly. The reverse is also true.

9. It’s being done for all the wrong reasons. Simply “checking the boxes” with screenings, health assessments, and disease management, without a commitment to truly driving lifestyle improvement, doesn’t work. Focusing too much on claims savings and “hard” ROI, rather than diving deeper to assess the true value of your investment (VOI), isn’t helpful. If there’s disingenuous concern for employee benefits (meaning the company puts in a wellness program so they can say they provide great benefits, but doesn’t truly care about what those benefits are), people won’t care.

Corporate wellness works …

… when it’s done right! After 11 years as an innovator and leader in the corporate wellness world, we’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t, sometimes the hard way. It’s not necessarily about C-suite buy-in, and it’s not even necessarily about the program itself, as long as the program is at least decent and works the way it’s advertised to work.

We’ve found the number-one determinant of whether a program will be effective or not is how excited the person or people are running it internally. Someone (or a team of someones) can make or break a program; if they love it and actively promote it, it’s more likely to be a success. If they’re ho-hum about it, or belittle it, it will fail.

*Why did I put “studies” in quotes? Even the most reputable organizations are often guilty of poor study design, faulty reasoning, claiming causation when they’re actually observing correlation, small sample sizes, selection bias, uncontrolled / unverifiable groups, and … well, you get the point. I have nothing against quality data; it’s more the way too many people are way too quick to cite “studies” that suit their argument, regardless of what the data actually says when you dig deeper. Whenever you see a statistic, make sure you understand how it was generated before you accept it as fact!