The HR department has been under increased pressure to accomplish more with less resources, and this is obvious in the way wellness programs in the workplace are developed. As a result, many programs are being implemented without enough support, leading to poor participation and results. Aside from hurting HR’s reputation, this could also make employees feel less connected to you, the very person who has the key to boosting their productivity and happiness.
For the past decade, I have studied workplace wellness programs all around the world and have been guided by some of the most renowned HR Directors, Vice Presidents of Benefits, CEOs, and Wellness Heads. Here are the top eleven most common mistakes I see and hear.
This checklist gives you a chance to learn from the (sometimes quite expensive) mistakes that have cost others their chance to change their employees’ whole lives.
1. You don’t get something for nothing
Many businesses have wellness program in the works, but no money has been set aside for them. If you think of workplace wellness as a way to fine tune your employees – who remember are your company’s most valuable asset – then you need to apply the same thinking that you’d apply to having your company’s machinery serviced. Firstly, you need to do it regularly (before problems arise) and, more importantly, only entrust the job to technicians with the right tools and experience.
A wellness initiative is a major undertaking and adequate funding, and the right partner, are critical to a successful program. If your wellness budget is nothing, then that’s the return you can expect to see – nothing. In fact, exposing your human capital to a poorly planned and assembled program that bores, demotivates and confuses them is the best way to ensure they drop out and become far more resistant to your future initiatives.
2. Doing wellness to your employees, not for your employees
Most wellness programs fail because the target audience has no interest in what is being offered. For a program to work it needs to use the tone and language that appeals to your most sedentary, disengaged, and distracted employee. It needs to contain activities that are appealing to everyone, and it needs to be presented in an engaging way that makes employees see the generic term “workplace wellness” as something they should strive towards. They should feel like it was designed specifically for them, rather than something that is being forced onto them for the good of the company.
The best way to achieve this is to unite everyone and give them a unique role in the biggest and best show your workplace has ever rolled out.
3. Thinking that one size fits all
No two people have the same attitude, physical strength, self-discipline or motivation. And likewise, not all of your employees need the same type of help at the same time. Some may need assistance with nutrition and others with increasing their physical activity. Some might need help with engagement and others with improving the amount/quality of their sleep. Even within these elements, employees will vary in terms of their level.
A program that enables your employees to start together but then gradually operate at their own pace ensures that they build levels of self-awareness, motivation and connect themselves to the right tools, options and resources that are available as and when they need them. It also means that your wellness offering becomes a journey of personal discovery.
4. Paralysing people with too many choices
Too many options can stall your employees’ decision-making process. If there’s something wellness related starting and ending every other week, then there is a risk that your employees may become overwhelmed and not opt-in to anything. The likelihood is that they’ll just keep leaving it until ‘next week’, which inevitably never comes.
To ensure that you maximize the number of employees actively getting involved, it’s important to demonstrate a commitment to an overarching initiative. There’s nothing wrong with offerings like on-site fitness classes, annual health fairs, flu shots, in-house gyms or the occasional seminar. In fact, these are helpful in supporting your overall program, but there needs to be an overall program that drives people into these options.
A smorgasboard of offerings complement the behaviours and healthy attitudes you want to see, it rarely creates them.
5. Forgetting that what gets measured, gets managed
I often hear CEOs telling me, “We’re rolling out a wellness program because it’s the right thing to do”. If that’s what gets an organisation started, then that’s fine. The important thing is to ensure, as soon as possible, that there’s a set of numbers to clearly demonstrate that the program has credible business metrics. If it doesn’t, then the next time the company’s stock price falls/there’s a sales blip/a round of cost cutting or redundancies/enter crisis as applicable, there’s a risk that your program may well have a red line put through it.
Business doesn’t have much room or time for ‘nice-to-have’ expenses and the only way to position wellness as an investment, rather than an expense, is to show numbers that demonstrate you’re making quantifiable improvements across factors that improve performance. These may be elements like engagement, health scores, BMI, job satisfaction, weight loss or absenteeism. So the most pressing decision on your list is to identify which metrics you plan to measure and ensure these are tied to the overall business strategy. Also, it’s important to remember that these numbers need to be from your company and the program you’re investing in, not a dusty, generic study with dubious claims about $6:1 ROI.
6. Not shooting for the stars
You infinitely improve your odds of creating a sustainable wellness program if you can gather buy-in from senior management. In my experience, HR professionals often overlook the fact that CEOs and boards are willing to grant them budget for a wellness initiative that works.
“The people sitting in the big leather chairs at the boardroom table understand the importance of walking the talk – and doing it in front of an audience.”
They see wellness as a demonstrable way to show employees that the organisation cares and has a genuine interest in their health, happiness and well-being. If you look at the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and world leaders these days, the vast majority of them are fit, healthy and active; they have to be in order to perform at the top of their game, and to balance the pressure and demands of their careers, travel commitments, and their health.
When you present to the people at the top, you’re generally preaching to the converted. An additional benefit of embracing those at the top of the ladder and having them actively participate is that wellness programs are a great leveller and it’s likely that the right program will help connect them socially to every kind of employee.
7. Forgetting your core target: high-risk employees
Anybody who can carry around a clipboard can sign up a healthy, engaged, active employee to a wellness initiative then, at the end, reinforce how healthy they are. One of the reasons the CFO’s office red flags wellness initiatives is because many of the numbers published by wellness industry vendors seem to only include the ‘already healthy’ and the ‘worried well’ and leave out the high-risk employees with poor health scores.
In order to overcome this, it’s critical that your program is designed to attract and engage all of your employees, and is especially concerned with those that are most resistant. This takes some effort, patience, understanding and creativity, but the pay-off is significant because the high risk employees with low health scores are the ones with the greatest scope to improve and are the most expensive, so the return can be spectacular. It’s worth remembering that these same people are likely to be the most removed from you; while you may be using the latest gadgets and fitness apps to download how many calories you burned off yesterday and record your sleep quality, your high-risk employees aren’t.
8. Making the healthy option difficult
Healthy choices need to be easy choices and this means getting your ‘house in order’ by paying attention to the nuances of your space and culture. If you want employees to change how they look at wellness and your role in delivering it, you’ll need to view your environment through the eyes of your most cynical employee.
The only way to create a true culture of health is to be authentic about it in every way.
This might mean moving the soda machines so they’re not so prominent, opening up the stairways and giving them a coat of paint and better lighting, making fruit the regular office snack instead of donuts, changing food choices at meetings and staff functions and scheduling walking meetings yourself to show others how productive getting outside to walk and solve problems can be.
If wellness is truly a priority, you have to exemplify that throughout your entire workplace. You don’t need to make a big song and dance about it – that may give people the impression it’s a novelty or a gimmick. Just firmly and subtly make the changes. Your employees will soon notice, and they’ll understand
9. Thinking you can do it all in a month
Creating a genuine culture of health and changing your employee’s behaviour and attitudes is an ongoing process. Over time, your employees’ enthusiasm for your wellness program will fluctuate, which is why you need to keep your program fresh. If new activities and components are not constantly being integrated into the program to maintain employees’ interest, it may be difficult to motivate continued participation.
Similar to other business practices, continue to refine and adapt things each year. Analyse the elements of your program and reinvest in the areas that gained the most traction and delivered the biggest returns, then rethink those parts that haven’t. I say ‘rethink’ because the reasons behind a component’s failure may not be obvious. Often I hear HR managers lament the high attrition rate of employees taking part in a wellness initiative, then blaming this on employees themselves. Closer inspection generally unearths the same formula: boring program = bored employees = low uptake and high attrition. If at first you don’t succeed, then try again with a new vendor, new design and new content.
10. Trying to reinvent the wheel
Many organisations try to launch a wellness program with just their own internal staff and the assistance of their health insurance carrier and neglect to use outside experts and vendors. The reality is that designing a wellness program usually requires expertise and experience beyond the traditional HR function. If you look over at your IT department you’ll invariably see a small head count, relative to the sheer complexity and business criticality of their activities. For many years, CTO’s have understood that it would be absurd to try to develop an operating system for your company when Microsoft has mastered it. The same goes for all of the software, hardware, communication infrastructure and networking your business depends upon.
It makes sense to select dedicated outside resources and support that can ensure your program succeeds. This also ensures you reap the benefit of your vendor’s experience across multiple industry sectors, demographics, psychographics and geographies. It also affords you the opportunity to enjoy economies of scale and access to content, expertise, talent and experience that will be beyond your budget and, quite possibly, beyond your wildest dreams.
11. Letting feelings override facts
Workplace wellness is a nuanced blend of science and art. It takes a good measure of creativity to ensure that you’re delivering an experience that connects with employees’ hearts and minds.
It isn’t enough to just alter how they behave in the short term, the real sustainable change arises from changing how employees think and feel. What must never be overlooked is that your entire well-being program must be anchored in science. The information you distribute must be clinically proven.
I’ve heard HR Directors say: “We think the World Health Organisation’s recommendation for daily physical activity is too high” or: “We don’t think our employees could eat the recommended servings of vegetables” even: “We think asking our staff to maintain this behaviour for that many months is too long, so we’ve lowered/shortened it to something we think can be achieved.” Not true. 10,000 steps a day might sound like a lot, especially for someone who is only doing 2,000, but giving people the facts (however unpalatable) along with a program that can excite them and gently move them along the path towards health is the best – and only responsible – option.
You have the opportunity to change your employees’ whole lives with your workplace wellness initiative.
In my view, transforming how people feel about themselves and helping them develop a set of healthy habits and a sense of resilience is the greatest legacy an organisation can leave its employees. You have great power in your hands, use it wisely.