How You Can Make Workplace Wellness Work

workplace wellnessWhy settle for less than the best? From the time we’re young to the day we retire, we’re taught and encouraged to strive for more. Train hard to make the top team. Study hard to get top grades. Earn a college degree that will really pay off. Get more for our money. Achieve maximum results from our exercise and diet. Realize optimal returns on our financial investments. Reach the top of the ladder at work. Retire early so we can enjoy more time doing what we love.

Why do CEOs settle for less when it comes to the health of their employees? Sure, as business leaders we all say we are committed to building a healthier workforce because we realize the impact it has on our business. But when push comes to shove, we’re satisfied with offering workplace wellness programs that deliver average results. In fact, current surveys show that while the majority of employers offer a workplace wellness program, an overwhelming percentage of employees—as many as 80 percent by one estimate—are opting out of those programs.

Recent conversations, including a University of Illinois study about the impact of workplace wellness, have focused on how wellness doesn’t work. Researchers in studies like this one rightly point out that most workplace wellness initiatives struggle with low rates of engagement. However, when done well, workplace wellness can have far-reaching benefits for an organization. Studies have shown, for example, a positive correlation between having a comprehensive well-being program and performing well on the stock market.

So, the real question is: What can we do to address the vexing topic of low rates of engagement?

If you build it, they will come. Or will they?

If you’ve followed the traditional workplace wellness program protocol, you’ve probably assessed employee health status, provided feedback on risk factors, and then matched employees with interventions that teach them how to change their behaviors. Considering that we’re continuing to see low rates of engagement, not to mention the fact that most organizations have not made much of a dent when it comes to meaningfully enhancing the health and well-being of their employees, it’s fair to say that this well-worn path is in need of a reboot. The upshot is that simply offering workplace wellness is not enough. Rather, these programs must be carefully designed so that they meet the needs and interests of the employees that they are intended to reach.


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What employers have discovered, perhaps the hard way, is that unlike the Field of Dreams, if you build a well-being program, employees will not necessarily come. Even if you offer financial incentives, which most employers do, employees may not stay past the first inning. In fact, a recent study found employees are leaving money on the table by not taking full advantage of incentives available to them. Moreover, there’s evidence to suggest that incentives may perversely undermine the intrinsic motivation and willingness to sustain a behavior over time.

So, what can be done to address lagging rates of engagement? Although each workplace culture is unique, there are seven simple things all employers can do to lay a foundation of success upon which wellness, and managers at all levels, can thrive.

7 steps to take well-being from good to great

Set the tone. As a CEO, you are the one who sets the tone and allocates resources for any wellness initiative. You create the big picture for well-being within your organization. Moreover, as companies like Johnson & Johnson, Cleveland Clinic and Barry Wehmiller exemplify, the fastest route to building a culture of well-being is when the CEO leads the way

Activate your managers. The next step, often overlooked in efforts to build a culture of well-being, is to engage middle managers. While your endorsement may create a broader acceptance for well-being on an organizational level, every employee is likely looking to their boss to “give them permission” to actually engage in wellness. What this means is that every manager has an opportunity to serve as either a gatekeeper or multiplier of well-being for team members. According to Gallup, managers likely account for 70 percent of the variance in how individual employees engage with their work and their wellbeing. Our research shows that in organizations where managers have learned to become multipliers of well-being, both participating managers and their team members reported increased engagement with work, enhanced well-being, and improved productivity.

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