Health coaching doesn’t work. Or does it? (Part II of III)

by | May 9, 2018

In Part I of this three-part blog series, we discussed traditional health coaching and its numerous shortcomings. (If you haven’t read it yet, go back and get up to speed!) Now, in Part II, we’re discussing what ought to be done differently, with a quick glimpse into how we’re doing it.

What’s the problem?

Today’s workforce is demanding more opportunities to improve/maintain its wellbeing while at work (and nope – it’s not just the millennials!). And while health coaching has long been a popular employee-wellness option, it’s been largely ineffective at creating lasting wellness-program engagement and driving large-scale health-habit improvement.

Sure, coaching has helped to improve the lives of a small subset of employees, but it isn’t delivering long-term results for the critical mass of employees that employers want to see. We outlined this in detail in Part I, but here’s a quick refresher of what you can expect to see from most standard coaching programs:

  • It’s telephonic (and typically scripted/lacking personal connections).
  • It’s typically centered on tobacco cessation and weight management.
  • It’s targeted to high-risk employees (and it’s often punitive in nature).
  • It’s incentivized (often heavily).
  • Employees still aren’t very engaged (especially if they signed up just to get the incentive / avoid the penalty).

So, what’s an employer to do? They’re in the market for a coaching program that will energize employees and add value to the overall wellbeing offering, but coaching hasn’t really done this in the past. So what should they do to get the long-term health and productivity improvements that they want to see from their investment?

That’s what we’re committed to answering.

What we’re aiming to improve

We tried to find the perfect coaching partner, but we kept running into more of the same (over-reliance on incentives, disengaged coaches).  So we brought it in-house. Now that we’re able to control the quality of our coaches (and ensure that their focus aligns with ours to drive personalized health-habit improvement), we see hope for the health coaching world.

So, how’d we do it?

We took the same high-touch, passion-fueled approach of our other programs and flipped the traditional coaching model on its head, providing employees with a welcoming, non-threatening space to discuss their needs and roadblocks – and to work toward their personal goals with personalized accountability and support. It sets up our coaches to go beyond what traditional coaching is capable of – for employers AND employees.

Here’s what you can expect from the Sonic-Boom-style of coaching:

  • Engagement over incentives. Let’s face it – if we all did what our doctors or nutritionists suggested, we’d be living in a Disneyland-like utopia of health-and-happiness (spinning teacups and all). Sadly, that isn’t the case – and the super-long line for churros is a more accurate reflection of our intrinsic health priorities. So “generous” incentives are often used to encourage members to take coaching for a spin. And while these CAN nudge members in the right direction (and get the coach’s foot in the door), incentives don’t help with long-term health habits. Instead, incentive budgets grow increasingly more monstrous (because employees now view coaching as a chore for which they should be paid / rewarded), and they gobble up all of your wellness dollars. As is our assertion for all wellness programs, coaching should be viewed as a benefit that employees actually want to participate in because it’s valuable and personally relevant to them – not because of the “carrots” (or sticks) dangling overhead.
  • Focus on long-term achievements. Most first-timers to coaching will focus on a specific area of their health – like quitting smoking, or losing some weight so they can fit into their high school prom dress again (where exactly they’ll go while wearing it, we have no idea – but you get the point). Regardless of the initial goal, what happens once they complete/achieve it? They typically lose interest in coaching and go back to their old way of living. And that’s because a short-term goal was achieved – not long-term behavior change. While short-term successes are important (and should be celebrated as such), we know that consistent achievements are the only way to get employees to achieve their long-term goals. Look at it this way: A member’s weight may fluctuate over the years, but healthy habits (discovered through conversations with her coach) can empower her to make healthy choices for a lifetime (while driving long-term wellness program engagement).
  • A truly personalized approach. Every person has unique barriers and motivators, so how can you expect the same program/goals to work for everyone? Answer: You can’t (or at least you shouldn’t). But you CAN provide resources that inspire each member to take charge of their health and learn to clear those hurdles on their own (or to reach out and ask for help when they need it). Too many coaching programs provide “personalized” action plans that are mere configurations of a pre-templated plan. Coaches aren’t personal trainers, and they shouldn’t simply tell employees what to do to “get healthy.” We believe that each individual is creative, resourceful, and whole – that each member holds the unique answers to their barriers inside themselves. It’s the coach’s job to help reveal those answers, offer new perspectives, and lend their support to try new things – whether the member succeeds or fails (and to continue trying again and again).
  • Fewer penalties; more opportunities. Too many coaching programs continue to target the small handful of high-riskers. But what about everyone else? ALL employees should have the right to a health coach. After all, our health includes more than just managing weight or quitting smoking – we’re also faced with mental wellbeing, stress, sleep, finances, and a multitude of other areas where folks could use some guidance. Making health coaching available to the entire population – and taking a “whole-person” approach to behavior change – makes it an invaluable resource for the organization at large.
  • More-frequent communications. While scheduled phone calls are the bread and butter of most coaching programs, conversations between a member and his coach should be open and fluid all year ‘round. A frequent communication strategy, with meaningful interactions and multiple methods of communication (including goal-tracking and secure messaging), is designed to keep members on-track and accountable – even between Those numerous “digital interactions” help emphasize a coach’s always-availability and willingness to help – whenever members wanna talk.
  • Support for the rest of the program. Outsourcing coaching may work fine for most vendors, but coaching works even better if it’s integrated with other parts of the wellness program. For example, our in-house coaches are able to access data from other areas of the program to provide even-more-targeted advice and recommendations to each member. Coaches can also familiarize themselves with each client’s culture and values, and can refer members to other company programs (like the EAP, or Weight Watchers at Work) whenever applicable, driving value and greater awareness of the wellness offering as a whole. You simply don’t get that kind of client-specific attention when you outsource.

Coaching … continued (again)

Sure, our coaching philosophies may seem a bit edgy (we kinda have a history of that) – but the status-quo wasn’t getting anyone very far, so change was imminent. We have no doubt that employers want their programs to work, but there are too many factors working against their success. For most coaching programs to get on the right track, change starts with eliminating (or at least drastically reducing/restructuring) incentives. It continues with hiring the right coaches – coaches who do more than just “tell people what to do,” and who are passionate about helping others help themselves – sometimes even meeting employees where they’re most vulnerable, to help them identify and break past their barriers.

It takes a special sort of person to be a health coach – someone who’s truly committed to helping others (and is willing to let go of their comfy, comfy script). Luckily, you’ll find out just what kind of person that is in the concluding leg of this series, where we’ll be sitting down with Coach Katy O’Farrell, our Health Coach Manager, to get the run-down on her health-coaching history and how she’s lending her expertise to Sonic Boom’s energizing program.

We’ve only just scratched the surface of our coaching approach. If you want a more in-depth explanation of what we do differently, let’s chat. We’d love to share what’s REALLY on our minds about the health coaching biz.

Eric Seal

Flippant Writer Extraordinaire

Questions/comments (or want to learn more)?