How to Start an Employee Wellness Program


Do wellness programs work? While 80 percent of large employers offer some form of wellness program, many also question whether they’re seeing a positive Return on Investment, or ROI. Further, two recent studies out of Harvard University and the University of Illinois ask similar questions while others demonstrated the exact opposite. What’s going on? Rather than ignoring this data, let’s take a deeper dive into this data, what the broader scientific community is discovering and what it means to you in practical terms if you’re wanting to optimize outcomes in your current role.

I’m Dr. Bradford Cooper of the Catalyst Coaching Institute, where we partner with organizations and individuals looking to Be A Catalyst for a world in need. If you’ve not yet hit that subscribe button down below, that’s an easy way to tell us you like what we’re doing.

The question on the table is straightforward: Do wellness programs work? In order to answer that, we must first define two terms: “wellness programs” and “work.” Let’s start by defining the second, as it’s quite clear. In this context, “work” refers to whether the wellness program in place produced a positive outcome, providing a value equal to or greater than the cost of such a program.

The term “Wellness Program,” on the other hand, is a bit more slippery. Many programs – including some of those reviewed in the published studies – focus on the idea that “Information equals Application”. In other words, the organization will incentivize you to pick a topic such as nutrition, physical activity or stress reduction. You are then provided the information regarding what you need to do to improve and then you implement those changes in your life. It looks good on paper except for one problem: personal health & wellness doesn’t take place on paper – it takes place within the context of a unique living, breathing human being.

The annuls of psychology, neuroscience and related subjects provide just a bit more information about how human behavior is influenced than we’ll try to cover in this brief overview. However, even a rudimentary glance at the research makes it clear creating positive behavior change isn’t simply a math problem. For example, the classic Stages of Change Model, developed by Dr. James Prochaska – who was kind enough to join us for our special 100th episode on the Catalyst Health, Wellness & Performance Coaching Podcast – reminds us there’s a big difference between the Precontemplation and the Action Stages. Leaving this out of the behavior change equation by assuming information equals application is just one simple example of why so many health & wellness strategies fall short.

So what is the solution? Faith Hill reminded us years ago that “The secret to life is there ain’t no secret – and you don’t get your money back.” Fortunately when it comes to an effective employee wellness strategy, there are a few secrets that can move you – and your ROI – forward.

#1 – Move beyond the old “Dimensions of Wellness” and integrate the Building Blocks of Performance into your model. We discussed this new model at length in a previous video and will link to that below but here’s a quick summary: The updated Building Blocks model allows each individual to identify their key area of emphasis and interest at any particular moment in time while simultaneously seeing it within the bigger picture. It takes into account the realities of life, the importance of foundational health providing the stability necessary for wellness and – if desired – the opportunity to pursue enhanced performance in a specific area of interest.

#2 – Integrate personalized, nationally board-certified health & wellness coaching as a core piece of your strategy. Over the past few years, a dramatic shift has taken place in the coaching world. It used to be that anyone could call themselves a coach and a wellness company could sell “coaching” as a service without any accountability about the quality of that coaching or the training of those individuals providing that coaching. Fortunately – or perhaps unfortunately for some who preferred coaching style over coaching substance – the National Board for Health & Wellness Coaching or NBHWC was established in 2016. The NBHWC partnered with the National Board of Medical Examiners – yes, the same organization that licenses physicians – to create standards of excellence for the new generation of health & wellness coaches. Just as you wouldn’t seek out an unlicensed physician for your medical care, those who are aware of the NBHWC know better than to settle for amateur coaching.

#3 – The 3rd key step to creating ROI is to make a decision about whether your wellness strategy is about checking boxes or changing lives for the better. If the latter, turn your attention to the concept of 1 size fits ONE. Check the box models, like the ones falling short in the research studies mentioned, act as if everyone is coming to the table with similar histories, goals, support systems, emotional responses, schedules and more. They put an emphasis on moving through pre-determined steps to reach a similar outcome. Providing the catalyst for lasting, meaningful behavior change involves tapping into the intrinsic motivation inherent in each individual to move forward.

Does the second option sound like we’re sitting in a circle, singing kum-ba-ya and handing out participation medals while telling people “You Be You”? Absolutely not. When done effectively, the second method absolutely provides measurable outcomes that will not only have a positive impact on the EXPENSE side of your Income Statement, it can also boost the performance of employees, driving revenues higher in the process.

At the core, a wellness program exists to create lasting, meaningful and positive behavior change. Do they work? Only if the strategy we put in place builds in the latest research around intrinsic motivation, motivational interviewing, stages of change and other elements leading to such change.

If you’re serious about creating such a strategy and would like additional guidance, contact us through our website at Catalyst

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