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The Road Less Traveled—High Impact Wellness Initiatives

I recently had the honor to speak at the Midwest Business Group on Health’s annual conference in Chicago.

The theme was “Buckle Up! Employers Driving Real Change Through Transparency and Innovation.” The U.S. continues to outspend every other developed nation in healthcare expenditures. These costs are now north of 17% of our GDP, which is more than the total GDP of Germany. You would assume that with the highest expenditure, we would be healthier than ever, but sadly this is not the case.

Our life expectancy continues to decline and is less than other developed nations. This inverse relationship is putting pressure on employers and the healthcare system in unsustainable ways. Depression rates are three times what they were before the COVID-19 pandemic, death by suicide rates have increased, drug and alcohol use is up . . . I could go on and on. We simply can’t continue like this.

Wellness has long been seen as the answer—healthy and happy employees equal lower costs—but it hasn’t worked. The value proposition makes sense, and the intention is in the right place. So, what’s going on, and how do we start thinking about wellness differently?

In my keynote, “The Road Less Traveled—High Impact Wellness Initiatives,”  I shared my perspective on the journey that wellness has been on. Wellness programs started with giving away ChapStick, t-shirts, and bottles to get employees to participate in programs, then moved to richer incentives, point games, and biggest loser contests.

They took a turn for the worse when outcomes-based programs were introduced. This essentially likened health insurance to car insurance where the higher risk you are, the more you pay. This is a dangerous exercise (no pun intended) in cost shifting and is damaging to workplace culture. We based our assumptions on a cost-avoidance ROI model—do this today and you will cost less tomorrow. This assumption is inherently flawed. You can’t measure what didn’t happen unless you have the privilege of owning a crystal ball.

The reality is that no wellness program has any chance of success in any organization if the culture isn’t supportive, which includes the presence of mistrust, a lack of leadership support, inequities, and limits on access to care. In the spirit of springtime, I will use a garden analogy: You can plant as many seeds (programs) as you want to, but without fertile soil and water (a supportive culture), nothing will sprout.

Sometimes, we forget that wellness is deeply personal and our wellness goals and motivations may differ. Some employees may be buying a house for the first time or welcoming a new baby into their home while others may be suffering a loss or dealing with a chronic condition. The truth is that no single program can account for everything, but the one thing that can help is focusing on building caring cultures.

Showing authentic care for employees has been shown in research to improve employee retention, health outcomes, and loyalty as well as reduce hostility. And the best news is that creating caring cultures costs nothing—It’s free, and the benefits are staggering. While creating caring cultures is free, it isn’t necessarily easy to do. It involves building trust, training leaders, being transparent, communicating in meaningful ways, and genuinely showing empathy to employees when needed.

WELCOA has been working on the solution for a long time, and after years of research, we reintroduced our Well Workplace Process and the 7 Benchmarks Model for successful wellness initiatives. This change management process is a tried-and-true methodology for improving organizational culture and ensuring that any programs you implement have the best chance of succeeding. In other words, we are making your garden ready for the seeds you are about to plant.

Employers are the key to reversing our high-cost, low-quality-of-life conundrum. As Dr. Jeffrey Pfeifer suggests, the workplace is the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S. I would love to see that influence flipped. If employers have that kind of power, then they can certainly bring health and prosperity to their employees. Let’s leverage that power and influence to bring health and happiness to all.

WELCOA is here to help. Together, let’s cultivate a garden of wellness for all.

Ryan Picarella
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR Ryan Picarella // Executive Director • WELCOA