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What’s Wrong With Wellness?
And How Do You Get It Right?

Written by:
Heath Shackleford, Chief Marketing Officer, CHC Wellbeing
Ramki Ramanarayanan, Chief Executive Officer, CHC Wellbeing

The statistics speak for themselves. The majority of Americans (60%) are living with a chronic condition – 42 percent of adults are suffering from multiple chronic conditions. Meanwhile, an estimated 8.3 million American adults suffer from serious psychological distress.

We are lonelier, sicker and more stressed out than ever as a society, at a time when there has never been more access to wellness programs and services. Employers continue to experience annual increases in healthcare costs, despite investing in the health of their employees.

Let’s be very clear from the beginning of this post.
Wellness isn’t working.
It just isn’t.

So, where did we go wrong, and how do we make it right? Because at the end of the day, we all likely agree that wellness can be a powerful force for the culture, the health and the bottom line of a business. Wellness can work. It just doesn’t happen as often as it should.

Let’s start with the trends that are threatening the viability of wellness, and then we’ll offer strategies for overcoming them.

The Technology Tsunami

There was a time when wellness was a hands-on business. Nowadays, it’s easy to get lost in a sea of mobile apps, wearables, e-learning platforms and self-directed coaching. It’s all about technology and big data. It’s about how artificial intelligence is reshaping the HR space. According to Rock Health, more than $4.2 billion dollars in investment funds were raised by digital health companies in the first half of 2019 alone.

In this race toward the latest technologies, we are quickly losing the touch and feel that is so critical when it comes to wellness.

In the land of hub and spoke style portals that serve as an online vending machine for a multitude of wellness flavors, it is starting to feel like something might be missing. Can wellness be effectively delivered in the same way entertainment is channeled through Netflix? Or do we need something more?

If you go back to the early days – or just a few years ago – wellness was a high-touch business, dominated by onsite biometric screenings, health fairs, lunch and learns and in-person or telephonic coaching. Real people creating trust and supporting healthy lifestyle changes.

But Health 2.0 ushered in a brave new world, complete with a proliferation of new vendors offering technology-based approaches and an avalanche of health and medical apps. Almost overnight, there was an invasion of technology in the wellness space.

Legacy wellness programs were hugely inefficient and unable to effectively deliver personalized information at scale across populations. Wellness 2.0 can be cold and underwhelming, failing to establish the deep, long-term relationships required to help individuals overcome their biggest health challenges and most unhealthy habits. After all, it really looks cool when that virtual reality equipment is hanging in the relaxation room. But what if it just hangs there? And how are you measuring the impact if someone does put it on?

Research shows that employees actually prefer a mix of interaction, some digital and some physical. Some artificial and some real. Even digital-first platforms must incorporate ways to create interactions between and among people. We are losing sight of this truth today in wellness.

Additionally, technology alone is not actually a solution. It is a means to an end. It is a conduit. Without an organizational culture that creates a fertile ground for wellness to thrive, trusting technology is the equivalent of spreading seeds across a barren field. Nothing will come of it.

The Gold Rush

With every passing day, more people realize there is a lot of money to be made in the “wellness industry.” Wellness is experiencing a gold rush, where countless new players are trying to break into the space and carve out a piece of the pie for themselves. This has led to mass confusion about what wellness even means and what it looks like. It has resulted in analysis paralysis by employers who are being bombarded by solutions that are positioned as part of the wellness equation. Many of these solutions are built with no real healthcare expertise backing them up.

Others are piling up features and functions in an attempt to cover any and all possible demands by clients. Case in point. I was speaking with a company in the wellness space recently. They were sharing how their product covered almost 40 different domains of wellbeing. It was an impressive platform that allowed for a good deal of personalization. But 40 domains?  How do you manage and measure that?

To make matters worse employees are being flooded by wellness options as well. Analysts value the consumer wellness industry at $4.2 trillion globally, and it’s growing. Popular categories include personal care, wellness tourism, fitness, mind-body and complementary medicine. Specific products and services range from acupuncture to meditation apps to sound baths to goat yoga. Yes, goat yoga. If you didn’t know, it’s a thing. With all these competing forces, it can be difficult to break through to employees and clearly communicate the value of engaging with your corporate wellness offerings. The truth is, your employees are being distracted and confused on a daily basis.

We are losing sight of what wellness actually means, and that is a dangerous place to be. When the marketers and the business opportunists hijack a hot term like wellness, it can quickly lose its core meaning and its foundational value.

The Easy Button

It’s understandable how overworked and overwhelmed HR departments could be sold on solutions that promise to make things easy. The claims are plentiful, using terms such as turn-key, end-to-end, low admin burden, hands-free, self-serve and plug-and-play. But today’s off-the-shelf wellness solutions can be short on service and low on healthy returns. The tough truth is this. Wellness isn’t easy.

As a society we are addicted to simplification. We will leverage technology and innovation to simplify anything and everything. But just because you simplify something, doesn’t mean you make it easy. You can find simple processes or blueprints for writing a book or building a house. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to accomplish either of those things.

There are no shortcuts when it comes to building effective wellness programs. From clarifying your overall goals to gaining leadership buy in to effective execution and measuring the results of your efforts, wellness is complicated. It requires commitment. It requires blood, sweat and tears. It requires patience and persistence. There is no magic pill, no silver bullet, no turn-key solution that can change this reality.

Take engagement for example. If someone approaches you with THE answer to driving engagement in wellness, you should be very wary. That’s because there is no easy answer for engagement. It requires you to have a deep understanding of what YOUR population wants and needs and what cultural obstacles might be getting in the way.

If “set it and forget it” is a big part of the pitch, it’s only a matter of time before your organization will forget about wellness altogether.

The Measurement Mess

For years, industry experts and researchers have squared off on this topic, some defending the financial value of wellness initiatives, others fervently poking holes in their methodologies and offering credible counterpoint studies to suggest wellness doesn’t actually save money after all. In response to this debate, some employers have simply given up on ROI measurement. Others have chosen to expand their evaluation to a more inclusive view of the benefits wellness can deliver, by measuring the Value on Investment. This means focusing not only on financial returns but also positive impacts on productivity, absenteeism, worker’s compensation, safety, recruitment and retention.  

Many organizations have been burned in the past by vendors who promised unrealistic returns or guaranteed results within unreasonable timeframes. Many organizations have been jaded by vendors who tortured the data until it told the story they wanted it to tell. In other cases, vendors unintentionally misled clients because they were using methodologies that were poorly designed and fatally flawed.

While there have been many “bad actors” and no universally accepted approach, the truth is this. You can measure the impact of your wellness programming. And you should. If your wellness program isn’t measurable, it doesn’t really matter.

It is easy to get sidetracked by the most recent study or the latest headline. At the end of the day, I think we all agree, intellectually, that improving the health of employees results in lower healthcare costs and improved productivity. Measuring that in an indisputable way? That’s another story. And we need to accept the limitations. As an industry, we’ve expended far too much time and energy engaging in the ROI debate. And it has been detrimental to the advancement of wellness programming.

The obvious question. So, what now?

So, I know what you’re thinking. In light of all that’s wrong with wellness, how do you design a program that works? How do you avoid the technology traps? How do you dodge opportunists selling under the label of wellness with no real expertise? How do you avoid buying things you don’t need?

For all that’s wrong with wellness these days, we have also seen groundbreaking innovation. We’ve seen wellness drive game-changing results.  Because wellness can work, if you take a few critical steps. Here they are.

1. Straight Talk

The first step in the process is making sure we are loud and clear on what we mean by wellness and what we need it to accomplish. WELCOA has done a great job of providing a foundational definition for wellness, but that only takes you halfway. You still have to specifically define what wellness means for your organization. You have to determine “why” you are providing wellness to your population. What are your specific goals? What are your specific expectations? What do your employers want and need? How will you know if you are successful?  

Don’t accept someone else’s definition of wellness. Know who you are, what you need and what success looks like BEFORE you engage with potential partners. This will help you narrow the list of providers from the outset AND help you more accurately assess capabilities so you get exactly what you need.

2. Strategy First

You need a strategic partnership to successfully execute a wellness program. You need an experienced person or team to collaborate with as you design your approach. Thinking strategically, and long-term, about your wellness initiative is the only way to ensure you achieve what you need to achieve. Too often, wellness programs are caught in tactical mode and don’t plan thoughtfully for the future. If you don’t have a clear path for the next three years, there is little hope that your wellness journey will be a positive one.

3. Be Human

Don’t place all your hopes and dreams on technology. Ensure a balanced approach that marries high touch and high tech. Include onsite screenings and education, as well as 1-on-1 health coaching, to complement digital tools.  Leverage an online portal that can facilitate both self-directed activities as well as facilitated group challenges, walking activities and ongoing opportunities to connect with other participants. Don’t forget that establishing trust, engaging senior leadership and fostering a culture of wellness are all more important and impactful than any piece of technology you choose to use.

4. Get Personal

Reject all cookie-cutter solutions. As mentioned earlier, your population is unique. You need, and deserve, a solution that is personalized for your organization. A millennial-centric software company should never be treated the same way as a group of coal miners. Seems a little “Captain Obvious” to state that, but it happens all the time.

There is no such thing as one-size-fits-all in wellness. It’s more like one-size-fits-one. Combining best practices with “best-for-you” practices is the key to success. All the way down to the specific timing and value of rewards you provide, your wellness program has to be uniquely designed for your workforce. Any partner who can’t bend and be flexible will be part of the problem, not the solution.

5. Measure What Matters

When it comes to wellness, measuring your return on investment is hard. It can be frustrating. Some say it is impossible. Regardless, the exercise is still worth the effort, and the headache that may ensue. Only wellness programs that clearly demonstrate how they are making a real difference will survive in the long run.

That being said, you must be sure you are measuring what’s most important for your organization, as determined by your definition of wellness and your strategic plan for wellness. And then, you must hold vendor partners accountable for providing transparent, believable reporting against your key metrics.

In summary, wellness doesn’t work as often as it should. But it can work for you. Just remember that you can’t be enchanted with the latest technology if it doesn’t actually solve a problem. You can’t be distracted by definitions of wellness that don’t align with yours. You can’t be tempted by the “easy button.” And you can’t settle for anything less than transparency and accountability when it comes to measurement.

Here’s the bottom line. It’s time to raise the bar. As an employer, you need to commit to more preparation and planning and strive for more consistent support for wellness as a business imperative by your leadership. You have to do the groundwork required to set yourself up for success. Before you consider external assistance, make sure you have a firm handle on your needs and know exactly what you are looking for in a partner.

As for your vendor partners, you should expect more of them as well. They should come to you with a strategic mindset, a flexible set of capabilities, deep expertise in designing programs and driving engagement and be willing to go into the trenches with you and work the wellness program on a regular basis. No flashy technology. No easy buttons. Just proven approaches, useful tools and the ability to help your vision become reality.

Let’s make wellness work again. It starts today, and it starts with us.