At the end of each year, a hush falls over the world, as it awaits the arrival of…
…the annual end-of-year wellness wrap-up that Jen Arnold and I record for her Redesigning Wellness podcast! It’s here!
This year was no different. Of course, this year was completely different, but Jen and I still managed to offer some reflections on 2020 in employee wellness. Unlike previous years, this time we forgot to prepare for took a pass on the nerding out on analysis of peer-reviewed studies that have tested the patience of delighted audiences in years past.
Predictions? Oh, we have predictions. We’ve got nothing. Our best shot at predictions were: Continue reading »
It may be too late for employee wellness professionals to adjust their plans for holiday-season programs this year, but now is an ideal time to rethink the holiday stress programs we typically offer.
Every December, wellness program managers promote programs about managing “holiday stress.” These commonly take the form of lunch-and-learns or communication campaigns. They have the usual catchy titles like Holiday Stress Less and Take the Hassle Out of the Holidays.
The holiday season is stressful for many employees — no doubt about it. And it’s distinct from other sources of stress in the workplace in that the conditions that cause holiday stress can, indeed, be modified with behavioral approaches.
But I suspect that our holiday stress programs add to employee stress. They contribute to a culture that considers stress the primary mental state in which we experience the holidays and, as such, comprise a self-fulfilling prophecy.
May I suggest a new approach to promoting mental health during the holidays, even if some of the content may be the same? Let’s offer programs that promote happiness and joy, rather than just trying to remediate stress. Next year, instead of teaching people to manage holiday stress, why not teach them how to nurture their holiday happiness? Why not publish newsletter articles like “How to Share Holiday Joy”?
Instead of “5 Tips for Managing Your Holiday To-Do List,” how about “101 Reasons to Enjoy a Holiday Vacation”? Rather than “Balancing the Burdens of Work/Life During the Holidays,” how about “Focus on Family this Holiday Season!”
[Originally posted by Bob Merberg in May 2010 on the In TEWN blog.]
Like many industries, we in the wellness biz tend to run with the herd. A few years ago, all we could talk about was mindfulness. Then we veered toward resilience. Last year, financial wellness was the buzzword. This year, the herd must be getting tired, as we switch direction toward…sleep.
New sleep program providers are cropping up, and existing wellness vendors are waking up to the opportunity to hop on the bandwagon.
Don’t get me wrong. Mindfulness, resilience, financial wellness, and sleep are important.
And I’m not saying that none of us have run against the herd by addressing these topics before they got trendy or supporting employee wellbeing in innovative ways. But, in general, our industry flits from one topic to another, from one tactic to another, falling in line with our herd’s stampede. The risk is that workers get trampled in the process.
One key to sustaining established wellness efforts, rather than letting the sun set on last year’s program as dawn breaks on this year’s, is to strategically scale up the size of the team that operationalizes these efforts. In other words — to use the term HR has eerily adapted from cattle ranchers — “add headcount.” Expand resources in proportion to demands? What a concept.
Despite my earlier acknowledgment that our herd mentality is comparable to other industries’, there is a difference: Other industries — especially those that are consumer-oriented — respond to changes in demand: Cold-pressed juice with chia one day, probiotics the next. Fuel-efficient cars one year, technology packages the next.
What drives our wellness herd?
As our newfound devotion to employee sleep takes hold this year, I suspect our herders may be revealed to us if we keep an eye on who is sponsoring the events, the publications, and the research that promotes it. There, the presence of vendors and pharmaceutical companies, for example, wouldn’t invalidate sleep as an important issue for employees, but it seems unlikely to serve as a sustainable driver of a successful long-term employee wellbeing strategy.
When I attend wellness conferences, everyone has one question for me: “What do you think of Al Lewis?”
It’s a dubious honor: The thing my colleagues most want to know about me is what I think of someone else. It reminds me of cities that promote themselves as “gateways” — Gateway to the West, Gateway to the Finger Lakes, or whatever. You know you’re in a lackluster city when the best thing it can say about itself is that it’s on the way to someplace else. My colleagues view me as a gateway to Al Lewis.
If you aren’t in the wellness industry, you can catch up on who Al Lewis is via his Linkedin profile, in which one of his jobs is listed as “Troublemaker-In-Chief.” Continue reading »
Last summer, I offered up my family as guinea pigs for a local Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA). As the leader of an employee wellness program, I was considering creating a partnership with the CSA to have shares of their harvest delivered to employees directly at work, and I wanted to check it out myself, first. If you’re not familiar with how CSAs bring together residents and farmers to support local agriculture and promote fresh food, find out more about them here.
My family started getting our weekly deliveries of vegetables and fruit — eagerly checking-in with the earthy young workers at the local pick-up spot and collecting our garlic scapes, bok choy, berries, broccoli, peas, greens, corn, chard, melon, and so forth.
My epiphany occurred around week two of the 14-week summer season. We’d received a bunch of green peas in that week’s harvest. The pods were plump and firm and seemed ready to burst. Like I said, I’m no foodie, and I wasn’t sure whether to eat the pods. So I did. Raw. I had about six or seven, and soon felt like I was digesting an electric sander. The next night, we cooked them, which I thought might soften them up but instead just seemed to toughen the fibers. So I went to the CSA’s Facebook page and asked whether the pods were edible.
“All that hot weather,” they wrote back, “followed by the thunderstorms made those peas really GROW in the last week. So, although typically delicious and tender. if you don’t enjoy the shells a bit more fibrous, the peas themselves are still delicious…”
That muggy weather. Those storms! I remembered them from just five or six days earlier. As I held a plump pea pod in my hand, I was thunderstruck by how it had been affected by the same storm clouds that had flash flooded the roads during my commute and overflowed the roof gutters of my house. There was a direct line from the weather into the ground through the pea and into my body. We were connected.
Of course, this realization isn’t that novel — even for a city kid like me. After all, I’d planted gardens that were influenced by the environment. But something about this direct experience of it in my core food supply brought it home and made it real. And I related to those pea pods, and all the veggies that came after, in a way that I’d never related to food before.
At work, we went on to pilot delivery from the CSA to employees at four worksites. One hundred co-workers out of about 2500 participated. That may not sound like a lot, but we chose not to set participation goals and didn’t push the pilot aggressively. We weren’t trying to change anyone; we were providing employees with a convenience they’d been asking for.
I considered subsidizing employees’ purchases. In today’s world of wellness, however, a subsidy functions like an incentive — and health incentives are deadly to the success of employee wellness programs. But I may rethink this.
The primary objectives of the program were:
To support employees who seek convenient access to whole, fresh food.
To support local agriculture.
But what I hope may be a bonus, and the reason this small program might be the most important wellness program I’ve ever offered, is because it has the potential to help employees experience their relationship with food in a whole new way — just like I did with the peas (Caution, however: n=1!).
Most healthy eating promotions used today — calorie labeling and nutrition education, merchandising tactics like those promoted by the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, and behavioral interventions like Weight Watchers— haven’t been a match for the proliferation of unhealthful food, oversized portions, and appetites that, for whatever reason, are insatiable. Conventional approaches have their place, but none have achieved good results on their own. And, with the possible exception of mindful eating strategies, none get to the root of the matter by a change in folks’ relationship to food, potential that exists with a CSA partnership.
I believe we also experienced an unintended consequence: A social effect that stands to bolster an employee community that rallies around well-being. Not only do some participants choose to split their shares, teaming up to divvy their bounty and exchange recipes, but on the day the large boxes filled with each week’s share were delivered, there was a heightened level of energy, curiosity, and camaraderie amongst co-workers.
We expect participation to double this year. Our next step is to source some of our employee cafeteria menu items from the CSA. This will, of course, support local agriculture in an even bigger way. More importantly, it will make high quality food available to a larger population, and it will integrate with our CSA purchase program — cross promoting and allowing prospective participants to experience how local crops can be transformed into delicious meals.
And a little transformation can go a long way.
(My wellness colleagues needn’t fret about the usual… ROI, outcomes, and definitions of terms. We’re helping get fresh veggies onto the tables of employees and their families. No vendors, no registration, no incentives, no behavior change, no contracts. The simplicity makes it sublime.)
Only about half of employers evaluate their employee wellness program’s effectiveness, so it may be time to own up to the possibility that you have no idea whether your program is helping or hurting, or whether anyone even knows you have a program. Or whether your company even knows it has you. That’s okay. You’re okay.
Here are 15 Do’s and Don’ts to help you rise out of the abyss of employee wellness mediocrity:
Don’t: Start with changing employees’ behaviors. Do:Focus on changing your organization. Healthy employees require reasonable job demands, input regarding job demands, appropriate rewards, reasonable work schedules, fair treatment, empowerment, less work-life conflict, and more social support.
Don’t:Expect your program to reduce health care costs. Most likely, it won’t. Do: Strive to support your employees’ wellness aspirations. Positive outcomes originate with your good intentions.
Don’t: Encourage your employees to get annual screenings. Screenings are probably one of the least cost-effective components of your program. Do: Offer your employees paid time off and good health insurance so they can get the care they need, when they need it.
Don’t: Get caught up in language: “Wellness” vs. “well-being”; “return-on-investment” vs. “value-on-investment”; “health risk appraisal” vs. “health assessment.” Not only are these sideshows, but in most of these debates, the wellness industry is settling for the less specific — hence, less measurable — option. That said… Do: Distinguish between “participation” and “engagement.” To use them synonymously is downright fraudulent. Especially: If you have incentives, you have unengaged participation.
Don’t:Call your health surveillance program an “outcomes-based wellness program.” It gives a bad name to those of us, and those employers, who truly care about worker wellness. Do: Speak out — in professional networks, on social media, at conferences, in journals, and in your company — against the scourge of “outcomes-based wellness.” If you don’t stand up to protect employees from mercenaries trying to pass off discriminatory tactics as “wellness,” who will?
Don’t: Try to address all the dimensions of wellness. Do: Pursue those dimensions of wellness that employees want addressed, that they will respond to, and that are actionable by and meaningful to your organization. (The dimensions of wellness — physical health, emotional health, spiritual health, financial health, occupational health, environmental health, relationship health, and so forth — are interdependent. When you influence one, you’ll influence others.)
Don’t: Rely on wellness committees to do the work. You don’t use committees to run your other employee benefits or your total rewards programs, do you? Do: Hire qualified professionals to do the work.
Don’t: Do something just because you heard about it at a conference. Do: Avoid insularity by attending wellness conferences and conferences focusing on unrelated industries.
Don’t: Limit yourself to the conventional American perspective on wellness. Do: Read the World Health Organization Healthy Workplace Framework and also RWJF’s Work, Workplaces and Health. (They make scant mention of biometric screenings, health risk assessments, incentives, coaching, apps, portals, or wearables.)
Don’t: Fret about what external critics think. Do: Define a clear goal and measure progress toward achieving it. Satisfy the needs of the organization.
Don’t: Obsess over obesity in the absence of population-based solutions. Do: Provide employees with delicious, fresh, whole food, when it’s necessary to provide food, and with opportunities to move.
Don’t: Get preoccupied with employees’ families. They don’t want you messing in their business. Do: Get preoccupied with the health of the community you are in. They do want you messing in their business, and you’ll stand to affect employees and their families in the process.
Don’t: Take it from me… Do: Seek diverse sources of evidence and opinion, and draw your own conclusions.
[15 Do-This-Not-Thats to Transform Your Wellness Program Into a Recruitment, Retention, Engagement, and Productivity Health-a-Palooza was originally published on the InTEWN blog, April 2015. Some of the links have been updated]
Recently, I chatted with the Human Resources director from an employer known for encouraging “fun at work.” The company had the usual symbols of a fun workplace: foosball tables, slides, Xbox, pie-eating contests, and parties for every occasion. The HR director boasted about parades, in which employees construct floats, dress up in costumes, and march around the office to mark company milestones. I asked, “What if you don’t want to join the parade?” No problem. If you’re not the parading type, you can work on building a float. “Everyone is expected to participate in some way,” she told me. “Our employees know what kind of place this is when they accept a job.”
Fair enough. But count me out. When the data reconciles, when I have that eureka moment of identifying a creative solution to a work-related problem, when a team member rises to a new challenge or lights up when recognized for a job well done… That’s what I call fun. Some employees enjoy the fun of work, and don’t depend on adding fun to work.
Much of what passes for “fun at work” — parties, games, playground apparatus, contests, dress-up, etc. — represents little more than workplace tyranny of extroverts over introverts. And studies show, according to author Susan Cain, that one third to 50% of employees are introverts. So consider that half of your workforce may experience fun by setting their minds to their work, and they may be put off by someone else’s brightly colored and boisterous version of fun.
Lately, the social web has shone a light on “surface acting” in the workplace and the body of research, albeit thin, which suggests that being compelled to demonstrate positive emotions — like when service workers are required to smile and chirp to customers, regardless of what they are actually feeling — leads to emotional exhaustion, stress, and reduced productivity.
While most research demonstrating the negative effects of surface acting is based on studies of frontline workers such as customer support reps, food servers, hair stylists, clinicians, and first responders, blogger Mike Pearce — in a post called Surface Acting: Bad for Business and Your Health — points to a study suggesting that expressing inauthentic emotion in meetings is linked to employee burnout and turnover. Indeed, it’s not unheard of for supervisors to warn office workers — even those who have no exposure to customers — to smile more, a directive that serves no purpose other than allowing the supervisor to perpetuate their own delusion of leading an energized team.
In a LinkedIn post called The High Cost of Acting Happy, Time magazine contributing writer Annie Murphy Paul proposed well-founded alternatives to forced happiness:
Train workers well, so that they satisfy their customers with good service. Offer them congenial working conditions, so that they’re glad to be at work. Allow them more personal control over how they do their jobs (research shows this can buffer the stress imposed by surface acting). And provide them with opportunities to develop genuinely warm relationships with managers, coworkers, and customers—so that employees have something real to smile about, and so that when they tell someone to “be well,” they mean it.
Paul’s advice is rooted in evidence that maps how employee well-being is a product of healthy organizations and job design rather than employee behavioral change.
Do employers’ attempts to foster fun at work actually promote surface acting and its unwelcome outcomes? Do employees really want fun at work? Does contrived fun serve any purpose whatsoever? We’ll need more evidence to know for sure. In the interim, here are six tips for keeping the fun fun, and for keeping the surface acting at bay:
Genuine fun arises effortlessly. It may come organically to some workplaces whose culture is well suited for it. If you try to have fun, you’re not likely to.
Allowing people to bring their individual authentic personalities to the workplace, to express them freely, and to socialize according to their own desires, may be more fun than so-called fun-at-work events, campaigns, or games.
Not all employees seek fun in the workplace, and not every organization needs it. Tune in to employee demographics and organizational culture.
Fun in the workplace efforts may not be the only employer contrivances that promote a culture of surface acting. Be on the lookout for unintended consequences of the increasingly popular resilience and positive psychology initiatives so that stress, sadness, depression and even everyday introversion are not stigmatized.
What employees and employers sometimes perceive as a need for more fun may actually be a need for something else — gratification, camaraderie, satisfaction, purpose, hope, inspiration, or self-expression.
Based on studies of surface acting, expecting employees to act like they are having fun may lead to burnout, job dissatisfaction, turnover, and absenteeism. And that’s no fun for anyone.
I’ve previously mentioned that Scandinavia has pioneered research about job-related stress. Now, we learn that Scandinavian countries — specifically, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark — are the only ones that have a word for “happiness at work.” The word is arbejdsglaede. And, no, that’s not a typo.
Below is a video about arbejdsglaede.
The video is oodles of fun, but I have one beef with it: It advances the conventional American notion that employers are not responsible for employee happiness, and that your happiness is entirely in your hands.
Certainly, you have some accountability for your own state-of-mind. But Scandinavian research has shown repeatedly that organizational structure and job design are the primary drivers of employee well-being. So go ahead and grab yourself some arbejdsglaede — happiness at work — if you can find it. But don’t be too hard on yourself if you can’t.
There may be some employees whose health has benefited based on some feedback they got on an HRA, but not enough to warrant the investment you are making in the HRA (that investment includes your organization’s money; your time; and, perhaps most importantly, your participants’ time, energy, and goodwill). But don’t listen to me. Your employees will also tell you that your HRA doesn’t make much difference to their health. That’s why some employers pay employees up to $500 just to complete an HRA.You wouldn’t have to pay employees to complete a simple form if they actually saw any value in it to begin with.
A series of blog posts about HRAs has deconstructed HRAs with an eye toward better understanding their value or lack of value. Here are the cliff notes:
The conventional framework of employee wellness programs is predicated on the principle that improvements in the health risk profile of a population can lead to reductions in healthcare costs and improved employee productivity.
HRAs are techniques or processes of gathering information to develop health profiles, using the profiles to estimate future risks of adverse health outcomes.
HRAs are dependent on self-reported data, which is valid for effective use in population health management intervention, although its value at the individual level is questionable.
Importing clinical screening values — such as blood pressure and cholesterol — to an HRA does not add much validity to the HRA on an individual basis, but, like the self-reported data, should be sufficient to measure the health risk of a population.
HRAs may help steer individuals towards more intensive programs based on the position of the individual in the strata of the population’s health risk and predicted health care costs.
These findings point to the same thing: Health risk assessment is a population health tool. HRAs’ primary utility is in helping employers identify the health risks that deserve the most attention in order to achieve positive health and financial outcomes. The same tool can then be used to measure a program’s success in shifting the health risk of the population.
Unfortunately, employers have been using HRAs, a population health measurement instrument, as a behavioral intervention. No wonder you are disappointed. Be honest with yourself and with your employees: The HRA is for you — a potentially useful tool in the administration of your program. It’s not an employee benefit, and your employees know it.
Part of the reason employers have mistaken HRAs with a full-fledged health intervention is that vendors have marketed them as such. As a measurement tool, you should reassess whether your HRA is worth what you are paying.
But don’t rush to throw the baby out with the bath water. If you decide that your HRA’s capacity to measure risk in your employee population justifies its use, your next step is to reconsider whether you truly need to have all your program participants complete an HRA every year. Your vendor doesn’t want to hear it, but you may be able to realize the measurement potential of your HRA more cost effectively by having a sample of your employee population complete it every two or three years.
I’m not making a case for or against health risk assessments, just encouraging you to make a well informed and critical decision. What do you want your HRA to do? What does your HRA do? Is your organization getting its money’s worth?
[This article was originally posted on the InTEWN blog July 11, 2012].
A recent Robert Wood Johnson Foundation study of workplace clinics included this:
“When it’s just a disembodied voice on a phone line in place of a face-to-face session, it’s not nearly as likely that [the employee] will form a connection with the health coach, or that the coach can figure out what makes [the employee] tick and what will drive behavior change that’s meaningful and lasting,” a benefits consultant said.
Certainly, when I’m seeking advice about human behavior, who better to ask than “a benefits consultant”?
What’s more, I’ve often heard decision-makers rush to judgement in favor of face-to-face coaching. One benefits director, telling me about her new coaching vendor, gushed, “They only do in-person coaching, which we all know is the best!”
Well, we may all think it’s the best. It’s hard to argue with what appears to be a high-touch approach. But argue I will.
Here are 4 reasons why telephonic coaching may be at least as good as face-to-face coaching:
Telephonic coaching overcomes one of the primary barriers to participation. Employees have limited time, and convenience is everything. With telephonic coaching, they can participate whenever and wherever they want.
Telephone conversations are not “disembodied voices.” If you don’t believe people can communicate effectively via the phone, will you also stand in the way of work-from-home arrangements, mhealth and telemedicine, and even conference calls? To take full advantage of the technologies of the present and future, we’ll need to let go of our old ways of looking at them.
Face-to-face coaching can be woefully expensive and inefficient. In most cases, face-to-face coaching simply is not feasible for employers that have employees dispersed over large geographical regions.
Employees demand and deserve privacy. If you’re an employer with a lot of extra configurable space, you may be able to devise the level of privacy employees demand, in which they cannot be overheard by co-workers, nor will coworkers even see them enter or exit the coach’s workspace. But can you match the level of employees can establish when they call a coach from the comfort of their home or office?
I don’t want to go overboard and try to claim that telephonic coaching is better than face-to-face. Most likely, the situation differs depending on the organization and the individual employee, and the ideal is to offer multiple options to each. But, as employee wellness continues to drive most of its initiatives based on intuition and pseudoscience, I simply want tocaution against assuming that telephonic coaching is in some way inferior to face-to-face coaching.
If you’re still not convinced, here are some studies that support the case: