Three reasons wellness programs fail

Since the RAND Worksite Wellness Program Study was released, there has been much debate on both sides of the fence as to the interpretation of the message that should be taken from the report findings.  It’s clearly not a black and white issue as some would lead you to believe. The first comer to the party — a Reuters article claiming worksite wellness “fails” — garnered most of the attention for its sensational position.

This was followed by an array of publications from the provider side using wellness research to defend their turf and the integrity of the industry itself. Like many things in life, this topic is far more complicated than a surface level "yes" or "no" answer to the question of whether the industry is “working” or not. 

Taking a deeper look at the findings of this report allow me to draw my own secondary conclusions. What I see is that outside all of the study limitations, the AVERAGE company looked at in this study isn't setting the world on fire with the success of their worksite wellness initiatives. Does this mean that we can make an umbrella statement that wellness doesn’t work, can’t work, won’t work? Absolutely not. It may just signal an inflection point in the evolution of the (very young) wellness industry

The reality of the situation is that many companies don’t have an ideal wellness program to deliver health improvement or return on investment. It’s not entirely their fault, as the research, knowledge, methodologies, program landscape have been evolving so rapidly that the worksite wellness industry has basically completely reinvented itself over the past 10 (if not five) years. In fact, a recent survey conducted by the Wellness Research Institute showed that a wellness program generally only lasts two to three years before switching providers.

Companies that aren't showing strong wellness returns in the RAND report may be attributed to three things:

They don’t have the right provider for their needs. There are well over 300 reputable providers dotting the worksite wellness vendor landscape today. Many companies have used the same provider for years and have never asked the question of whether their provider, or another, is still the best partner to help their employees get healthy. Or can a single provider deliver all of the program components they need. Or do their providers integrate data for the best outcomes.

Companies need to evaluate their wellness providers on a regular basis and ask some hard questions. Does it matter more if a company has a slick marketing presentation or if their cultural influence and program ideology match up with yours?  What about if they can check all of the boxes on a spreadsheet or if they specialize in your program goals and objectives?

Companies need to begin being more discriminating with their worksite wellness dollars if they are going to achieve the maximum return in the form of medical dollars saved, better health, happier employees or more productivity. 

They don't have the foundation for their wellness partner to provide an impactful program. Companies can have the best wellness provider in the country, but without the internal strategy and motivation to succeed, no wellness provider will make a dent in the health of a population.

Study after study have been published on the best practices of wellness.  The HR team, wellness specialist, wellness champions, etc, can likely recite WELCOAs 7 Benchmarks of Worksite Wellness Success.  But in the end does the organization truly embrace worksite wellness as a business strategy? Does the C-Level believe that the health of their employees will drive them to be more competitive and is imperative in the survival of the organization? Are health goals aligned with workplace policies and environment?

Without aligning the goals of your health management program with the larger goals of the organization, there is no chance for any wellness provider to come in and provide anything more than marginal success. From the top level down, employees need to feel like they are part of the solution, be incented to make healthy decisions and be rewarded for encouraging others to get involved as well.

They are being lumped in with a bunch of companies that are in the categories of No. 1 and No. 2. The final reason for the “average” looking bad in the RAND report is pretty simple…there are a lot of organizations that are guilty of the above two points.  There are volumes of published research showing that workplace wellness can and does work. But it is similar to asking if you can lead a healthy life in the United States. You may be fit and eat well, but…the average person in the country is overweight…so it doesn’t look very good for the population as a whole.  If everyone had the same positive health habits and lifestyles as you, the United States would look a lot better on average.

This report creates a powerful takeaway that the worksite wellness industry needs to acknowledge. It's our responsibility to figure out what the best programs are doing to accomplish health improvements, productivity gains and strong ROI and convince the others to behave the same way.

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