With the promise to improve employee health and productivity while also lowering healthcare costs, wellbeing programs continue to rise in popularity among employers. The latest trends in this evolving field include mind-body programs for stress, financial advising, healthy food, and team-based activities. If we look to research, however, many employee wellbeing approaches have struggled to demonstrate efficacy for decades. In fact, many HR professionals have lowered their expectations of wellbeing as a retention, productivity, and culture tool these days, rather than a measurable healthcare and cost strategy. Have we given up on designing for efficacious wellbeing and instead settled for something to simply make us feel good?
Heavily steeped in fads, the wellbeing industry has essentially been a recipe swap. Many human resource specialists, strapped by budget and time constraints, copy and paste what they hear works at other companies. Additionally, benefits consultants promote the newest wellbeing trends every year, much like a Prada fall fashion line. But workplace wellness is not a one-size-fits all approach–nor is it a checklist of new toys that we should throw at employees.
To make matters worse, traditional wellness programs rely heavily on health education and financial incentives to “motivate” employees to improve their overall health – whether it’s to lose weight, quit smoking, and so on. Employees are barraged with everything from portals full of online programs to health coaching, biometrics, and incentives. While these programs may sound appealing, the engagement and success rates remain low. Even if the evangelism around wellbeing has a life of its own, at some point or another, every company faces the question whether the funds being used for employee wellbeing can deliver a return on investment. More CEOs would expand their wellbeing budget if they just could see efficacy and clear results.
Through my graduate thesis at Harvard and being an executive at a large payer, I have studied, designed, and measured effective wellbeing approaches. The main deficit for wellbeing approaches occurs when they fail to address the psychological issues that go hand-in-hand with managing health. Presenting people with education and financial incentives seems logical and rational. However, as revealed by recent scientific discoveries, humans are proving to be less rational, and more emotional. In order to encourage people to engage in their health, and change their behavior for the better, wellbeing strategies must be designed for how people think and act in real life.
So, as an employer, how do you design a strategy that actually works? Surprisingly, the first step is to understand a little bit about the brain–no science classes necessary!
The most effective approaches to wellbeing all leverage how the brain works–whether by accident or by design. The brain drives 100% of our ideas, thoughts and behavior. Therefore, any wellbeing approach that engages people in their health, is doing so because it is stimulating the brain to get the desired behaviors.
For example, many wellbeing programs use personalized communications–matching the messaging to the age and gender of the targeted employees. But very few people know why this increases engagement. They leverage areas in the brain responsible for the person’s “self-image”, which filter attention towards things that support a pleasant self-image, like “I’m a runner”, and away from unpleasant self-images, like “I’m unhealthy”. This filter pays attention to everything “Me” and ignores everything “Not Me”. In fact, an employee’s self-image is the strongest determinant of whether they will engage with, or change, their health and wellbeing.
While it may seem strange to design an employee wellbeing strategy using a self-image approach, it is the strongest way to select and implement programs that move the needle on engagement and outcomes. One method we use in our design work at engagedIN is to create a series of self-images, or personas, that typify those in a population. For example, in a workplace, there may be self-images of “The Athlete” or “Overweight as a Child”. These may require two very different approaches to wellbeing offerings–especially if there is a fitness challenge that attracts athletes but intimidate those who have shame over their weight.
Designing wellbeing that supports positive self-image while being sensitive to negative self-images is associated with ROI. During my thesis work, a review of hundreds of large company wellbeing strategies, as well as dozens of ROI studies on employee wellness revealed a common equation: engagement delivers some, and full company culture delivers the most. Seeing this through the lens of self-image that works under the surface, engagement is really just a measure of how “Me” the programs are for the employees. Likewise, a corporate culture of wellbeing is simply a more exact match between the wellbeing strategy and the employees’ various self-images. In other words, if you nail the self-image with your strategy and offerings, everything else follows–engagement, risk reduction, and ROI.
The bottom line: all wellbeing solutions should be designed with how the brain works if we want to ensure ROI. Rather than leaving it up to chance, or blindly copying what has worked for others, using this secret ingredient can be the key to delivering the results for the C-suite as well as elevating and rewarding the HR professionals for using a science- and evidence-based approach.