What Great Corporate Wellness Programs Do
In a recent HBR post, “In Defense of Corporate Wellness Programs,” doctor and entrepreneur Rajiv Kumar took on the doubters about the value of corporate wellness programs. But as designers and researchers who have spent the better part of two years creating a system of healthy living for a huge national populace, we think he didn’t take his defense far enough. Not only are corporate wellness programs valuable for the organizations and their employees, as his data states, they are our biggest hope for fixing a national health crisis.
Thanks to their reach and influence on employees, workplaces have a unique power to reframe the mindset around health itself — from one of sickness to wellness. “Companies are a microcosm of society and an important and unleveraged setting for health improvement and risk reduction,” says Dr. Ron Goetzel, a leading expert in the field of health and productivity management. With 150 million Americans going to work every day, corporate America is not only in the best position to change our nation’s health, but has a responsibility to do so.
As part of a project with the Department of Defense, we recently researched over 20 award-winning and recognized workplace wellness systems, at companies such as Johnson & Johnson, L.L. Bean, and Safeway. We saw these leading organizations owning the responsibility to change how people interact with healthcare, in a way that government or healthcare organizations have been unable to do.
The organizations with the greatest success are managing to shift people’s relationship with health from one where health is something thought about and “practiced” annually at the doctor’s office, to one where health is practiced daily through small lifestyle habits. The more proactive stance toward health they have established feeds off of itself and enhances employee lives, even while reducing future costs. For the organizations in our study, this translates into average annual health care cost increases of 1 to 2 percent compared to the 7 percent national average.
How have they done this? Here are three approaches we discovered that appear to be key.
Put it in Surround Sound
Great corporate wellness programs bring the built environment, company policies, and leadership messaging under a single mission of wellness. When USAA’s Enterprise Medical Director Dr. Peter Wald joined the organization 12 years ago, he found many discrete resources for wellness — mini gyms, cafes, and health experts – already in place. Once he tied them under the mission of prevention, putting health in “surround sound,” as he likes to say, the program took hold within the organization. Safeway redefined its core business from “a grocery company with a wellness program,” to “a wellness company that happens to sell groceries,” and the program took off. The CEO, along with the leadership team, ensures that health and wellness are kept top of mind, and leaders work hard to tie all wellness activities back to a broader company strategy. Safeway made large capital investments in a state-of-the-art fitness center, a preventative-care health center, and health-focused cafeterias to support the organizational mission. Creating a seamless wellness experience has resulted in participation rates of over 80 percent.
Keep it Personal
When health is made personal and put in real-life terms, people discover the value that health can hold in their lives — and that provides the strong call to action. Johnson & Johnson, which has one of the longest-standing corporate wellness programs in the country, understands that people don’t strive to get healthy because it’s the right thing to do in some abstract sense. “Health is usually a means to an end,” says Adam Glauberg, Director of Global Health Services at Johnson & Johnson. The individual wants to be there for family, to get off diabetes medication, to perform better at work. If the company can tap into those personal motivations, it can better communicate the value of health. J&J uses a platform called “Energy for Performance in Life,” a training program designed by the Human Performance Institute division of Wellness & Prevention, a Johnson & Johnson company, to teach employees how to maximize their energy to improve their performance both at work and at home. The program is designed to be less clinical and more lifestyle-oriented than many health-oriented interventions. Making the program more relevant to everyday life dramatically increased the number of people engaging in it; it has now reached 90 percent employee participation.
Make it a Collective Effort
Wellness needs to be done with employees, not to them, or the effects won’t last. When employees feel a system is their own, engagement increases. The best programs actively design for “grassroots” partnership and harness the power of shared accountability to sustain engagement. L.L. Bean empowers its employees in different locations to design their own wellness initiatives relevant to their department’s needs. If a worksite is able to get at least 15 people interested in a new program, it receives funding and support from corporate to run that program locally. This kind of empowerment encourages many employees to become health and wellness representatives in their location — initiating activities such as Zumba and yoga and recruiting other employees to join in their collective wellness efforts. Building such community health champions helps spread the message and ensures the program’s reach. It also keeps people accountable and gives them the support they need at those inevitable derailing moments.
So let’s stop challenging the validity of comprehensive corporate wellness programs, and instead celebrate our most wellness-oriented organizations for stepping up to a national health care crisis. Our society depends on their reach and influence to help move practice forward, and to reframe the conversation from a focus on sick care to a focus on well care. Already, these programs have made deeper inroads into large, intractable health care problems than anyone else – and with the Affordable Care Act making new provisions for wellness programs, there is hope for greater support and incentives. Let’s give corporate wellness programs the support that will keep them, and the people in them, healthy.