4 Things Traditional Workplace Wellness Programs Get Wrong

Workplace wellness programs take many forms. For some, it's a monthly call to a health coach to discuss your eating habits. Other programs offer in-office yoga once a week. Maybe it's earning savings on your health care plan by logging exercise minutes based on the honor system. But there's one thing that most workplace wellness programs have in common: They're ineffective at invoking and inspiring real change.

While their intentions are admirable, cultivating and supporting a healthy workplace for all employees is a complicated task, one that many employers outsource to health insurance companies to streamline the process. Meeting people where they are in their health journey (or lack thereof) and helping them gain the education they need to improve their lives is a complicated task, to be sure, but traditional workplace wellness programs often fall short in ways that can be adjusted with the right mindset, coaching and resources. "The spirit of [workplace wellness programs] comes from the right place, which is that, in essence, a healthier, happier, more engaged employee is good for the employee and good for the employer," Spark360 CEO Jordan Taradash explains. "But helping support individuals at the right time with the right support, the right intervention and the right resources is where programs often fall flat."

With diabetes diagnoses climbing every day, obesity creeping into people's lives and heart disease still as the leading cause of death for both men and women, bringing wellness into the workplace—the place many Americans spend 40 or more hours a week—is more important than ever. By gaining an understanding of the limitations of traditional workplace wellness programs, both senior leaders and employees can learn how to take their health and health benefits into their own better and more able hands.

1. They focus too much on health screenings.

After signing up for a workplace wellness program, the first step is often a screening of some kind. The primary intention is to gain an idea of each employee's personal health to establish a starting line of sorts; the second is to allow people to get a glimpse of their health in an effort to encourage them to care and, ultimately, to change. Whether it's a biometric screening or health risk assessment, though, knowledge of one's health status is often not enough to inspire action.

Inspiring people to take action is a complex and difficult task, but what we do know is that medical results alone are often not enough to encourage people to spring into action. "In fact, it's only about five percent" Taradash says. "Only about five out of 100 people with awareness of their health status will take action to improve it. The awareness by itself […] just wasn't enough."

Beyond that, by focusing on assessments as your first step, you run the risk of alienating or even scaring people with their results. Coming face-to-face with your health on paper could arouse fear in a way that makes them feel overwhelmed by the prospect of trying to improve at all. When results leave people feeling hopeless, their willingness to participate in any health-focused activities or education decreases and they might even see their situation deteriorate when the reality of what it takes to get healthy feels like too much. As such, utilizing screenings and assessments as the first line of defense against unhealthy habits falls on deaf ears, and the program overall fails to leave a lasting impression or inspire change.

This fear factor combined with incentives-based outcomes, in which employees are rewarded or punished based on screenings and/or tests, in effect creates failures, which are essentially born out of the fear of "not being good enough".  Not to mention the negative experience of employees with disabilities, who—up until a recent ruling by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which vacated incentive provisions in its wellness program regulations—had to make the difficult decision of whether to maintain their privacy about their disability or "voluntarily" participate in assessments in order to earn incentives.

2. They use incentives too loosely.

Motivation is tricky. There's no one-size-fits-all solution for making people feel passionate and responsible for their future health, and health experts are always working on finding individualized ways to make health a focal point of their clients' lives. For most workplace wellness programs, though, their one-size-fits-all solution to encouraging participation comes in the form of incentives. Gift cards, discounts on gym memberships, drawings for iPads, discounts on health insurance contributions, office recognition celebrations—these and others have been commonly used to increase employee program adoption, the idea being that if you're working toward earning a prize, who wouldn't choose to participate? But the logic is short-sighted.

There are two kinds of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Extrinsic motivation occurs when a person is motivated by external factors, such as wanting to lose weight or fit into a bikini before vacation or earn a prize; intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is being motivated by the feeling achieved from the activity itself. Most workplace wellness programs live and breathe by encouraging extrinsic motivation. Taradash explains that, in a perfect world, behavior change is led by what's important to the employee and what they want to change. Ideally, they feel connected to their intrinsic motivation. In reality, though, employees in many workplace wellness programs instead think, "This was mandated by my company so I'll do it and I'll get paid for it." Nothing more, nothing less and nothing learned.

The issue here is that, in the real world, extrinsic motivation fades over time. Pursuing a prize or that bikini alone focuses only on the endgame and glosses over the importance of personal growth and sustainable change. That's not to say that those high-level extrinsic motivators do not serve a purpose—they're especially useful in initiating new behaviors that people might not otherwise try. However, those extrinsic motivators should be faded out over time as the individual starts to experience the benefits of their new health habits (improved sleep, feeling stronger, more energy) and are coached to define the more personal reasons why leading a healthy lifestyle is congruent with the person they view themselves as. These pathways combined with a strategic use of extrinsic motivators should essentially lead the person to discover their intrinsic motivation.

Very few people are 100 percent intrinsically motivated (seriously, who just loves hitting 6 a.m. boot camp?), but the goal of workplace wellness programs should be about further enhancing and developing intrinsic motivation through education and social and motivation. Creating a culture that emphasizes health as the core value, employees are more likely to comply with wellness programs and, ultimately, understand the power of healthy living as the chief long-term motivator. By focusing on incentives, employees are hardwired to work hard only for a reward. And when that reward goes away in the real world, so too does their motivation. With a concerted effort throughout the workplace and a rational, thoughtful way of utilizing extrinsic motivators that fades into more intrinsic-driven motivation over time, employees will learn to thrive both at the office and in their lives outside.

3. They're not backed by senior leadership.

Leaders have a responsibility to set the tone for the office culture, and yet, with many workplace wellness programs, senior leaders often fail to see the value in being tied to the strategy behind and impetus to set up workplace wellness programs, leaving employees wondering why they should participate in the first place. For management, workplace wellness programs are often viewed in terms of financial gains—fewer sick days and fewer employees with chronic conditions equals lower health care costs and better employee output.

When senior leaders are unwilling to set the foundation for these programs and put in the dollars to invest in their employees with better health resources and education, though, they fail to recognize employees as their greatest asset. And without that explicit buy-in and leaders who show interest and engagement in their chosen wellness program, employees follow suit and are less likely to engage. For workplace wellness programs to work effectively, the entire culture needs to participate and that starts at the top with an endorsement from senior leadership.

The first step in improving workplace wellness programs is to encourage senior leaders to be involved in crafting the overall strategy and creating the impetus for putting the program in to place from day one. Not only will this allow them to help structure the program that will be best for his or her employees, but it will also help them to understand the significance of each aspect.

Which leads to the second step: Senior leaders must get out in front and overtly communicate the program values and endorse the program overall. To get the most out of the program and truly improve health in the office, employees must understand why compliance with this particular program is good for both the company and the employee. Who better than senior leadership to stress this importance? Senior leaders should take the time to explain how the program will enhance the lives of employees, while also training managers in how to encourage employee participation. This direct endorsement from the high level offers the best chance of success in future implementation.

After laying the groundwork and committing to leading from the front, senior leaders must ensure that the resources required for success are there to support both the program and adoption campaign. This includes educating human resources and managers on their role in success, as well as putting dollars into education or other assets required to make the program function correctly.

"Usually a communication and engagement campaign relies on an overworked and under-resourced human relations department," Taradash explains. "If you give an HR team five different solutions to implement, they're either going to be frustrated and fail, or be frustrated and not even try. The necessity to have population health across the entire company with many different needs also necessitates that there is a coordinated method in implementing programming to all those disparate populations." As the saying goes, you have to spend money to make money.

4. They treat all workers the same.

Armed with employees of different ages, from different backgrounds and diverse family histories and lives, every workforce is unique. As such, it is key that senior leadership recognize the importance of meeting employees where they are in their health journey rather than delivering a one-size-fits-all health plan that works for some but not all. "We've seen a lot of extremes where the program will just engage and reinforce those who are already healthy and doing well. Then there's the other extreme of having a hyper-focus on folks who have many conditions or complex cases where they need a lot and are 'costing the health plan a lot of money,'" Taradash says.

While the goal of workplace wellness for upper management is to decrease health care spending on chronic cases and sick days, ultimately, programs need to be able to serve every employee, no matter if they run marathons or have been diagnosed with pre-diabetes. Only with education, encouragement and an environment that supports healthy behaviors will there be a true difference in the company culture and overall health. "If you're giving somebody support and they have pre-diabetes and they're working on preventing a transition to Type 2 diabetes in a work environment that forces them to sit all day, doesn't allow for a lot of activity or give them breaks to get up and move, and then also surrounds them with a food environment full of processed and nutrient-deficient foods, you can easily see how the intervention targeted at that individual will have a very low probability of succeeding," Taradash explains. The key here is moving past the idea that a simple program fueled by incentives will work for everyone and work toward a true shift in the culture and environment to encourage a lifestyle of health, rather than a few minutes of health here and there.

In the end, the best workplace wellness programs are actually very complex, integrated population health management programs that work for everyone, no matter their background, current or future health needs. "All people need to be involved in a culture of health and well-being," Taradash says. "Not just the healthy, not just the sick, but the entire group of individuals that make up the organization." Only when organizations recognize the power of a healthy, thriving workforce will they reap the benefits of dedicated and empowered employees.