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Sunday, 13 September 2015 20:18

If you build it, will they come? Communication remains key to worksite wellness

Written by  Jill Hinton
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In the pursuit of a healthy workforce, companies often create wellness challenges and offer some incentives for employees to eat well, get enough exercise and avoid smoking.

But when nothing has changed at the end of the year, those same companies are left wondering where they went wrong.

Almost 90 percent of people say they consider a company’s health and wellness benefits when choosing an employer, according to research from Colonial Life & Accident Insurance Co. But many employees might never participate in wellness programs because they simply don’t know enough about them.

According to RAND Corp.’s Workplace Wellness Program Study, just 60 percent of workers even know that their organization has wellness programs — and just 40 percent of those employees actually engage with the program.

Simply having a workplace wellness program isn’t enough, experts said. Engagement — the holy grail of successful wellness programming — requires research, transparency, buy-in from senior leadership and perhaps most importantly, communication.

“One of the biggest barriers to engagement in wellness programs is the lack of communication,” said Kandi Lannen, director of wellness at Priority Health.

Studies show that employers need to communicate their wellness messages 40 times before employees will pay attention, she said. That means employers need to take a hard look at how, when and why they’re communicating with employees about wellness.

“Think about the communication channel that’s most appropriate for that population,” Lannen said.

Employers also need to take advantage of all the different ways they can communicate to their employees. She said the best wellness programs find multiple ways to reach out — not just direct mail or email or posters in the break room, but also through wellness-based apps and text messaging.

Lannen said that to hit that magic number of 40 messages about wellness, employers also need to get creative. They need to communicate before they launch the program while giving sneak peeks and during the launch, and they need to be consistent throughout the entire wellness campaign.

Deadlines can also improve motivation for employees to participate, especially when coupled with a reward offering.

Behavioral science saves the day

It turns out that employers can also borrow theories from behavioral science to improve employee engagement.

“There are these philosophies around behavior economics, where people don’t want to feel like they’re leaving something on the table,” Lannen said. “We’ve learned that people are very irrational in their thinking.”

For example, some employers offer cash rewards to employees who participate in wellness programs. But when the cash doesn’t show up in their paychecks until months later and it’s lumped in with the rest of their pay, employees value the incentive much less than if there was an immediate reward for participating.

“People want immediate gratification, a timely reward that we can see and feel,” Lannen said.

Employees have been influenced by online shopping sites like, where consumers can redeem a gift card or coupon code immediately.

“It’s much different when you’re not going to feel a benefit for a year from now,” she said. “It’s lost. There’s a lot of science behind it.”

Employers must also remember that different employees have different needs when it comes to wellness. Whether you have line employees or workers who are spread out over different geographical locations, some will prefer to get communications at home in the mail, while others prefer to get email reminders of upcoming programs, including details on participation requirements and deadlines.

A small but growing number of employees have allowed their employers to engage with them on their smartphones, sending text messages a few times a month as a reminder to participate in programs or to take advantage of a wellness incentive, according to sources.

Focus on culture

Most people spend a large chunk of their waking hours at work, so employers have a big opportunity to influence their employees when it comes to wellness. Messages about improving nutrition, managing weight and increasing physical activity can all be done at work, during breaks and lunch hours. Employers also have the greatest opportunity to help employees with disease management programs, quitting smoking and managing chronic diseases.

But the effectiveness of the wellness initiatives comes down to how well the programs are embraced throughout the organization, Lannen said.

“If I were to rank the most important element of a successful wellness program, the number one factor on my list is culture,” she said.

According to Randy Boss, partner at Ottawa Kent Insurance, wellness programs will continue to struggle to gain ground if they’re seen as only an HR initiative.

“Senior management has to really embrace the culture of wellness,” Boss said. “It’s usually implemented by middle-management, human resource folks, and it’s extremely difficult to do without senior leadership buy-in.”

Employees need to see executives and managers “walking the talk” when it comes to engaging in wellness programs. If workers feel like they’d be penalized by their managers for taking a walk at lunch time, then employee engagement will continue to be an uphill battle.

“Having a wellness culture is where you can walk into an organization and it’s something that you feel and it’s something that you see,” Lannen said. “You feel different — it’s in the environment.”

Inclusion and transparency

Boss said companies also need to be careful of what he calls the “separating the herd” mentality.

“If you’re healthy, you’re in this group. If you’re not healthy and don’t hit that certain criteria, then you’re in another group,” Boss said. “It rewards those that are healthy, but it penalizes those who are not.”

A better strategy comes from making your communications as inclusive as possible, he said. In other words: more carrot, less stick.

Boss said he uses the 401(k) metaphor with his clients, since most people understand how saving for retirement works.

“You talk to them about making an investment in their health, but also allow them to make little withdrawals,” he said. “The key is to say, ‘We want to make sure that you put in more investments than withdrawals, or when you get to retirement age you’re not going to be able to enjoy your wellness 401(k).’”

He said employees then feel like they have some choices. If they love doughnuts, they don’t have to give them up; instead, they can see eating a doughnut as a withdrawal, one they can offset by investing in physical exercise.

“It gives them an idea of how to balance their investments and other withdrawals — that’s really what you want them to focus on,” Boss said.

Just like in a financial 401(k) where there are certain risks you can’t control, a wellness 401(k) also has risks like heredity and accidents, he added.

Priority Health’s Lannen welcomes the new focus on communicating about wellness programs, instead of just focusing on ROI.

“We’re seeing the industry really shifting away from focusing on return on investment, and really looking at ‘value on investment,’ things that you can’t measure,” Lannen said. “(ROI) diverts attention away from what we’re trying to accomplish, and that’s engagement. You’re not going to get engagement without effective communication.”

Read 3680 times Last modified on Monday, 28 September 2015 11:01

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